The story of the clownish vaudevillian singer Fanny Brice may have been sanitised, or simplified, for the 1964 musical Funny Girl, but this glorious revival which opens the Chichester Festival Theatre summer season in the smaller Minerva does not pull any punches in showing how love can curdle into cynical disappointment.
The moment we hear Samantha Spiro launch into “People” – people who need people are still the luckiest people in the world – we think immediately of Barbra Streisand, who shot to overnight stardom on Broadway, then in London, then on celluloid in William Wyler’s marvelous film. But Streisand was only cast after Mary Martin, Anne Bancroft and Carol Burnett all turned down the role.
So Spiro has plenty of room to manoeuvre, and she makes of Fanny a dynamic little sweet-natured oddball with a goofy grin, a big heart and an incurable infatuation with a good looking ne’er-do-well, Nick Arnstein, her “ruffled shirt,” whom Mark Umbers portrays as an impossibly good-looking, smoothly deceptive Rhett Butler type.
Streisand in concert nowadays turns “People” into some sort of UNICEF homily about world peace; it’s actually the opposite, a song of personal yearning, and Spiro does this superbly well. The music of Jule Styne and the lyrics of Bob Merrill seem new-minted in item after item, as Fanny recalls her life in a New York dressing room on the half hour call.
In a chorus line, she justly describes herself as a bagel on a plate of onion rolls; she’s not only smaller than everyone else in choreographer Stephen Mear’s gorgeous line-up of dancers, she’s cross-eyed and funny. A Ziegfeld tribute to bridal bliss is sabotaged by her sidling on with an inflated belly. And in the second act “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” a timely sardonic patriotic war number, she becomes Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator in a riot of stars and stripes, banners and painted rifles.
There are two faults in Angus Jackson’s production. He lets the narrative pace sag by ten minutes after the interval. And the band under Robert Scott is invisible. But I reckon that makes us listen harder to Jason Carr’s wonderful new orchestrations and appreciate the sheer musicality of lovely songs like “You Are Woman, I Am Man” and the thrilling accumulation of rhythm and sound in “Don’t Rain On My Parade.”
Spiro has long been a considerable actress. This is her moment of glory, and she is expertly supported by the divine Sheila Steafel as her (very) Jewish momma, David Killick as the silken impresario Flo Ziegfeld and brilliant Sebastien Torkia as Fanny’s first hoofer. Sets and costumes by Mark Thompson are a miracle of colour and invention.