The Streaming Experience: Funny Girl at the Palace Theatre, Manchester
“That’s where I live, on stage,” Fanny says. So four years later while on COVID-19 isolation in Toronto, I finally had the chance to find out if Smith truly is and was that fine jewel within the show. Filmed in full bloom during the final week of the UK tour at the Manchester Palace Theatre in 2018, the festive revival of Funny Girl, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, is an easy-breezy performance to take in. It floats forth full of fun and big grins, but I must admit she doesn’t have the required killer voice to knock those songs out of the park with power. She definitely has the presence to hold onto our attention and make us believe in her funny girl Ziegfeld fame. Framed by Michael Pavelka’s flashy blinking light set, the titled proscenium arches draw our eye inward, making us feel like she is only fully comfortable when on stage. The silhouette from behind looking out into the audience is the perfect set up, just like the first time we see Streisand in the famed film. It’s classic and tells the tale we already know and love. She sings with charm and wit, occasionally belting out broadly a moment here and there, but unfortunately, never with enough guts to make us forget Barbra.
She finds layers to unwrap inside that Brooklyn jokester who quickly climbs up the entertainment ladder to become a bonafide Ziegfeld star before she even knows it. “I haven’t suffered enough“, she says, and we all laughingly groan alongside her mother and friends. She’s perpetually putting on a goofy big smile, even sometimes as her heart is breaking. A laugh is just her best defense mechanism against the pain and loss she is feeling, even if it lessens the emotional moment. Tears cascade down her face during a wonderfully engaging rendition of ‘People‘, with a joke and a tap dance not too far behind. Smith never tries to replicate her famous predecessor, giving the songs a story entirely of their own. She does justice to Styne’s well-known melodies with unique solid emotion, never faltering or failing. Her “Don’t Rain on My Parade” sings strong, while never mimicking the defiance of Barbra’s rendition. It’s a strong understanding of the piece and the role, but she also never seems as funny as she thinks she is, especially during the seduction number with Nick. “You are Woman” doesn’t have the danger, nor the sexual electricity to believe in the dynamic.
I also noticed something this time around that I never thought of when I saw it before with Barnes. The staged numbers that Smith performs as Fanny never rise up to the same level as the movie counterparts, I ached for the simple “I’d Rather Be Blue Over You (Than Happy With Somebody Else)”, “Second Hand Rose” or the wickedly funny “Swan Lake” parody, but nothing in the stage version, particularly the mediocre “Cornet Man” and “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat“, comes remotely close. They are not as funny, nor as beautiful. Smith is a great actress and a pretty good singer but she never comes close to Streisand’s epic performance in the film version or her ability to be funny without over-selling the joke. Streisand won an Oscar for the 1968 film version of her Broadway breakthrough. but to compare this show to the film constantly is a disservice to all involved in this revival. So I’ll TRY not to,….but I can’t promise I won’t.
Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein is tuxedo worthy of Fanny’s endearing adoration. He’s “gorgeous“, as she likes to point out, and stands glaringly tall above all around him. He gives off a solid sexy charisma that would sweep pretty much anyone off their feet, but for the most part, the role never really gives the actor much of a chance to show off. There are moments, here and there, when we think, my, that was a lovely note or phrase, but his awkward dancing in “Temporary Arrangement” never pays off in the numbers given. It doesn’t help that the Harvey Fierstein revised version of Lennart’s thin book doesn’t give him a realistic “choking” moment to flail around in. The result is a lopsided love affair that doesn’t ever feel truly electric. Then again, this musical has always been about its female lead, and this particular staging spotlights the aura of the Ziegfeld Follies over the real-life romantic troubles of Fanny and her marriage to Nick. They are a side note here, a gazing in the mirrored walls on the edge of the stage, showcasing his beauty, but little else.
Director Michael Mayer’s production keeps up the hard-working pace, just like its talented heroine, moving the story along with skill and never really taking the tale too dramatically serious. He has Smith mugging for laughs as if her life depended on it, physically looking for the joke in every tailored moment, even when a more subtle one might do the trick, much like Lynne Page’s elbow nudging choreography. It’s all big and obvious, to the extreme. Smith displays her strengths, though with ease. She does well in uncomplicated numbers like “I‘m the Greatest Star“, but doesn’t manage to find the soul in the more heartfelt numbers. The best is the duet with Campbell’s Nick mid-Act Two, “Who Are You Now?” that finally gives the two of them a chance to shine together emotionally, a rare thing to be found in this rendition of the stage musical.
In many ways, the stage musical is well rounded and traditional, giving several characters and situations more to play with than the Fanny-focused Streisand film. Mother Brice, well played by Rachel Izen, and the two other poker-playing ladies; Zoe Ann Bown and Myra Sands, find flavor and fun in their side-act moments, while the more complex character, Eddie Ryan, played strongly by Joshua Lay, gets a few of his own moments to shine in, such as the mother/Eddie duet, “Who Taught Her Everything?” It’s a true showmanship number and one that leaves us wanting more from the both of them.