Funny Girl: London Theatrical Tour Part 2 of 6
The Guy Said Honey, You’re a Funny Girl…
This is what it was all about. Last fall, tickets went on sale for the West End transfer of Menier Chocolate Factory’s production of Funny Girl starring Sheridan Smith. And I snatched up two tickets for a July London trip that had yet to be planned nor even discussed. It was the first full-scale revival ever of this star-making musical and I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. After opening December, 2015, selling out the entire run within one day, and transferring to the West End’s Savoy Theatre on April 9, 2016 for a run through to September 10, 2016, the show has now been extended to at least mid October due to the high demand for tickets. So I felt lucky to have gotten two good seats.
To say that I’m a fan of that show, the film really, is an understatement of the highest order, and the fact that no one has dared to revive this show since its initial staging back in 1964 on Broadway (1,348 performances) with Barbra Streisand embodying the part of Fanny Brice, says buckets regarding the lasting connection we all have with her portrayal. But I was non-fussed. Someone was bound to come along, and stage a revival eventually, starring someone that would try not to mimic Streisand but create a original new take on the bittersweet story of Fanny Brice, and sing those great songs again on stage.
I thought it might be Lea Michelle and the producer of Glee, Ryan Murphy (who I believe owns the rights for a Broadway revival- http://www.playbill.com/article/ryan-murphy-comments-on-lea-michele-funny-girl-com-369102), as she has the voice, and the stage presence to give that part a real run for the money, but I had/have my doubts. I think she sounds almost too similar to Streisand (https://youtu.be/8xuIDbrZv4g), which to me would kill it, making it impossible to put every gesture and intonation of Streisand out of our heads while trying to see it anew. So I was so excited to see this production, and Smith’s take on the role. I was extremely optimistic.
But as luck will have it (good or bad luck, I’ll leave it up to you to decide – I’m leaning to the side of ‘good’), I didn’t find out what Smith could or did do in the role. The critics said she was ‘the jewel at the heart of this production’ (The Telegraph, April 21, 2016), but on April 28th, 2016 the show was halted 15 minutes into Act One, and thereafter, ‘due to the indisposition of Sheridan Smith’, the role of Fanny Brice was and has been played by the understudy Natasha J Barnes. (Word has it that Smith made her return to the production on July 8, 2016- http://www.playbill.com/article/sheridan-smith-returns-to-london-production-of-funny-girl-today almost a week after I saw it London).
Barnes is spectacular. A star in the making kind of moment. It was such a joy to see this production, as it differs a fair amount from the movie but also holds on to most of the lovely parts. I severely missed the songs that were injected into the film, such as “I’d Rather Be Blue Over You (Than Happy With Somebody Else)”, “Second Hand Rose”, and the very moving final song, “My Man”, all of which were frequently performed by the real Fanny Brice during her career, replacing the mediocre “Cornet Man” and “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” which I didn’t really care for. On the big numbers such as “I’m the Greatest Star”, “People”, and the closer of both Act 1 and Act 2, “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, Barnes is in complete control of her audience, playing with us a bit as the show goes along. With the first song, “….Greatest Star” Barnes shows us a beautiful voice and a great sense of control with this lovely rendition, one that makes us smile, but we are not blown away. With each subsequent number though, she seems to raise the bar, singing with a bit more strength and greater power as the show leads us through the maturing of Brice as a singer and performer. It’s quite a brilliant ploy, so with each of the classic song we are more and more pleased with Barnes and with her performance. When we finally get to the end of each act, she gives us her all, and we are overjoyed. I did miss the song that the movie ends with (“My Man” – https://youtu.be/Hdlz6QzyAVA), and wished for Barnes’s version, but what she does with the reprise blending of “People” and “Don’t Rain on my Parade” as the final song is a jaw-dropping stand-up-and-cheer kind of moment.
In many ways, this production is more rounded and traditional, (thanks to a helpful revised book by Harvey Fierstein) giving numbers to more characters and situations then the Streisand/Brice focused film. Mother Brice (a charming Marilyn Cutts) and the much more complex character, Eddie Ryan (a solid Joel Montague) get a few moments to shine in numbers such as “Who Taught Her Everything?” and “Find Yourself a Man”, while Darius Campbell as Nicky Arnstein gets to sing and dance (wonderfully) like a true professional in “I Want to Be Seen With You Tonight” as it was also wonderful to finally hear the song “You Are Woman” actually sung by two singers, rather than just one (Streisand, with Omar Shariff basically talking his way through a song, with a whole lot of charm, but not much vocal quality). It’s one of the funniest most charming moments and numbers in the show. Doesn’t hurt that he is a super charming, very handsome leading man, with a gorgeous voice, and charm to spare.
All in all, this production of Funny Girl, directed by Michael Mayer is a joy to behold. I do believe the movie was an improvement on the stage musical on so many levels, but in terms of a classic stage revival, it is well rounded and perfectly produced. It didn’t hurt that we were all rooting for Barnes to succeed, and with each song, she had us in the palm of her hand, cheering more and more for her. And with the last note sung by this talented actress, we didn’t have a choice in the world, but to stand and give her her due.