Funny Girl had a troublesome history the original time around. The starring vehicle for Barbra Streisand, had been in development for twenty years, had three directors (Bob Fosse, Garson Kanin, Bob Fosse), endless re-writes, and by the time it reached Broadway in 1964, Gower Champion had pulled out because it was shaping up as the most expensive musical ever staged.
When Streisand finally made it to London, the season was cut short because she became pregnant with her son Jason. The show closed shortly after she left town. It has not been staged in London or New York since. Perhaps this is because it is so strongly associated with the megastar that it is too much of a risk for investors, and the actress attempting Fanny Brice, the lead character.
Seeing Funny Girl at The Savoy Theatre it presents as much less a risk than one might suggest. It is a good show, with tunes by the master himself, Jules Styne. And with this first rate production it presents as a great night at the theatre, megastar or not.
Sheridan Smith has been on compassionate leave and her replacement, Natasha Barnes, has received a great deal of attention. Miss Barnes has had to attempt that most difficult of roles; stepping up as understudy and performing in the shadow of the star’s image and name blazoned over all the billboards on The Strand.
Natasha Barnes knocks it out of the park. Her performance is injected with such subtlety it is hard to believe she is an understudy at all. Not only is she navigating her current predicament, she has to lay to rest the ghost of Streisand, while exploring the cooky brilliance of Fanny Brice. She starts this mammoth journey full of cheeky innocence, and during the song People, we watch her mature before our very eyes, in the glow of her first kiss. It is just one of many very moving moments in the show, in which she appears in practically every scene. The parallels between Miss Barne’s journey and that of the struggling Fanny Brice, as she battles for recognition, cannot be lost on many. Brava.
There is not a weak link in this very talented cast. Marilyn Cutts as Fanny’s mother is beautifully understated, and the scene in which she confronts Fanny at the end of the show is filled with resonance and real care from a mother to a daughter.
Maurice Lane (Mr Keeney) and Bruce Maontague (Florenz Ziegfeld) look like they stepped out of a postcard from New York at the turn of the twentieth century. The script by Isobel Lenart, with additions by Harvey Fierstein, stands up well and there are plenty of laughs. The entire ensemble fill out the simple design with real understanding of the period and the style. The stage flanked by mirrors and glimmering illusions of theatre is a clever and moody design by Michael Pavelka.
Darius Campbell, with his matinee looks and resonant voice, is perfectly cast as Nick Arnstein. It is seen as a thankless role but he is very effective at elevating it and ensuring that we understand the attraction between these two misfits. Who Are You Now, which has been turned into a duet with Fanny in this production, we hear Darius in full voice, and also soft regretful tones. The interaction that he and Marilyn Cutts share, in relationship to Fanny, is a testament to the great story telling. Michael Mayer (Director) and Lynne Page (Choreographer) must be also congratulated.
If there is a starring role in this production, or any production of Funny Girl, it is Jules Styne (Music), who along with Bob Merrill (Lyrics), has written a truly wonderful score. At one time he had more hits in the popular charts than any other composer, and in Funny Girl we hear more than one real music theatre classic delivered with power and chutzpah by Natahsa Barnes and the cast. The immediate standing ovation from the crowd was effusive praise for a young artist who had impressed, and a show long over due for a revival.