Knocked flat by this flawed but wonderful musical, I saw stars at the interval, five of them. By the end – and the second act was always the problem, disguised by the surprise "star is born" wattage power of Barbra Streisand at the Broadway premiere in 1964 – the mini-constellation was a mere triple twinkle.
The film, with Streisand half-heartedly pursued by playboy financier Omar Sharif, is great, too. But the dramatic bones of the piece are better exposed in the theatre, and Michael Mayer‘s Menier production with Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice, the quirky 1920s Jewish vaudevillian who sticks out of a chorus line like a sausage at a barmitzvah, and Pop Idol hunk Darius Campbell as the fickle smoothie Nick Arnstein, is a peach of a powerhouse revival.
Harvey Fierstein has had a go at Isobel Lennart’s book, but it still falters because, Fanny having won her man and hit the headlines as the star of the Ziegfeld Follies, the show still can’t make up its mind whether to unravel or not. All the best songs by Gypsy composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill are in the first act, too, though the duet "Who Are You Now," artfully entwined with a "People" reprise, is beautifully done.
Smith’s performance, though, is an unqualified success. She does all the quick-fire cross-eyed goofiness of Fanny to perfection and, like all great comediennes, can melt your heart in a second. And she’s paced and tailored her vocal powers to the size of the theatre and the ascending glories of her three first act belters: "I’m the Greatest Star," "People" (the take-home hit, but twice as good a number when heard in dramatic context) and "Don’t Rain on My Parade."
It’s the pulse and shifting rhythms of Styne’s music that is the most exciting element in his score, brilliantly discharged here by a ten-man band under Alan Williams‘s musical direction. The mood is set with some lovely raspberries on the brass in the overture as the interior of Keeney’s vaudeville theatre comes alight behind the gauze screen, cross-fading into Fanny’s home patch in Brooklyn, where her formidable mother (Marilyn Cutts) is flanked by poker-playing pals Gay Soper and Valda Aviks.
Mayer’s production makes a small show look big – which it will be, for sure, when it arrives at the Savoy Theatre next April after the current sold-out run. Lynne Page‘s choreography is a joy – especially the high kicks from the sitting position and the witty processions on a travelator presumably held over from Richard Jones’s The Trial at the Young Vic – the dancers, leggy girls and cartwheeling boys, all absolutely terrific.
Gypsy this ain’t, not even close, but you’d pay funny money to see Smith on this form, and she makes you laugh as much as you cry, especially in the penultimate song, "The Music That Makes Me Dance," a much better number, again, in its emotional and dramatic context, and one that hadn’t registered with me before.
Funny Girl runs at the Menier until 5 March 2016 and at the Savoy from April 2016.