To steal a line from the original film advertising campaign for Funny Girl, “People who see Funny Girl, are the luckiest people in the world” And that was the case yesterday in Melbourne’s State Theatre. Could there be a nicer thing to do on a Saturday afternoon than watch a theatre star, take the stage with absolute confidence and style, in a classic musical comedy written by the master, Jule Styne.
Funny Girl started its life in New York as a vehicle for legendary star Barbra Streisand. The fact that it is never been to re-staged in the West End or Broadway since, until this year, is testament to the impact that Barbra Streisand had in her first performance in a major musical. She went to win an Oscar for the film version.
The Menier Chocolate Factory launched a new production earlier this year, which has since transferred to the Savoy Theatre. After the transfer, the star Sheridan Smith had to pull out, in a series of strange miss-steps. In a classic showbiz story, her understudy Natasha Barnes took over the production, quite literally, and made more of an impact than the star herself.
The most wonderful thing about the restaging of Funny Girl is that it is a reminder of what a great score Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. Backstage showbiz stories are always popular fodder for musicals and this proves to be so in the retelling of the life and loves of Fanny Brice: Zeigfeld star, comedy star, and singer.
Jeanne Pratt’s The Production Company presents three productions annually at the grand State Theatre in Melbourne and always uses a full orchestra. And for the first time, they now boast their very own The Production Company Orchestra. Hearing the first bars of the overture was worth the ticket price alone.
Gale Edward’s direction of this semi-staged production has real vision. It comprehensively combines this ‘semi-staged’ concert style and the innate theatrical nature of this piece. The lighting design by Trudy Dalgleish is very effective, helping to bring colourful moments into sharp focus. When Caroline O’Connor pivots to the audiecne, high above the orchestra, and launches into His Is The Only Music That Me Dance the entire audience had goosebumps; rear spot lights cutting out a dramatic silhouette, soft hues bringing out a shimmer in every sequin attached to Ms O’Connor’s gorgeous gown. A true star moment.
Caroline O’Connor literally eats this role up. O’Connor was in classic bavura-style, making making the most of each and every moment in the still highly amusing script by Isobel Lennart. Anyone who needs to approach this role has Barbra Streisand looming large in the wings. Caroline O’Connor faces off La Streisand by wisely making this show about Fanny Brice. In doing so she has concentrated on the comedy, the moves, the cookiness and determination that made Fanny Brice a American household name. Rat-A-Tat-Tat, could be a throw away moment, that was made into a showstopper; the audience literally laughing out loud. In less qualified hands, it would simply be an old-fashioned comedy routine. If Ms O’Connor had a spring in her step, as she literally tore up the stage, it’s because an actress of her nature strives to play roles like this Funny Girl, and the result is unadulterated excitement for the star and the audience.
David Hobson is sadly mis-cast as Nicky Arnstein. Neither his voice nor his in-built style epitomise the allure of this riverboat gambler. Regardless, watching the relationship between Arnstein and Brice evolve was surprisingly effective. You Are Woman, I Am Man was one of many show highlights.
Nancye Hayes (Mrs Brice), Susan-ann Walker (Mrs Strakosh), Judith Roberts (Mrs O’Malley), and Greg Stone (Tom Keeney) filled out the supporting cast; all high-energy, larger than life characters from another time. Special mention goes to David Ross Paterson for a stylish and touching portrayal of Florenz Zeigfeld. Luke Alleva as Eddie Ryan was much to young in the role, and although he exhibited more than enough high-stepping, toe tapping energy to take on the part, it’s unfortunate that his characterization fell short.
Kelly Abbey choreographed the very accomplished ensemble in a style, not only reminiscent of the period, but an energy that brought a sparkle to the large stage of the State Theatre. Filling large spaces, as is often the case in concert-style productions, is not only difficult, but requires real understanding of the art of ‘staging’. Kelly Abbey proves once again that she is a serious talent.
It’s a shame that Australian audiences only get to see a limited ten performances of this wonderful show. Could it be time for a fully-staged tour?