Originally written for the Guardian.
That’s where I live, on stage,” says Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice. In this knowingly theatrical revival of Funny Girl, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, it’s easy to believe her. Michael Pavelka’s set frames the Broadway star inside an ever-present, tilted proscenium arch – the wonky mirror image of the one at the Palace theatre. The suggestion is that she’s surrounded by audiences on both sides, forever the performer.
Back in the role of Fanny for the first leg of a UK tour, after a celebrated West End run interrupted by absences due to stress and exhaustion, Smith is showbusiness incarnate. In her hands, the lively Brooklyn joker is an intricate tangle of competing emotions, all covered up with a big, bright, Broadway smile. One moment, she’s pulling an impressively elastic series of funny faces. The next, she’s singing a feeling-drenched rendition of People, tears cascading down her cheeks.
For rising vaudeville star Fanny, comedy is a mask and entertaining the audience is a way to deny personal pain. Even with tears in her eyes, Smith is ready with a grin and a wink for the stalls, pointedly making a performance out of Fanny’s real life. Whether stinging from rejection or overwhelmed by lust, this leading lady always has an aside for the punters.
Overcoming the towering memory of Barbra Streisand in the central role is no mean feat. Smith, though, proves herself more than capable of matching Streisand’s physical comedy and belting vocals, without it ever feeling as though she’s attempting to replicate her famous predecessor. The songs, in particular, Smith makes entirely her own, rippling Styne’s well-known melodies with raw emotion. Don’t Rain on My Parade is more grit than brass; People aches with quiet longing; Who Are You Now? is peppered with painful sighs. In spite of all her passionate feeling, though, this ambitious star-in-waiting has a spine of pure steel. No one would dare to rain on her parade.
Chris Peluso is less convincing as Nick Arnstein, the object of Fanny’s endearingly dorky, weak-at-the-knees adoration. The fact that her star eclipses his is central to the story of their rocky relationship, but Peluso lacks the necessary charisma to persuade us that Fanny would ever swoon quite so helplessly in his arms. It doesn’t help that his pathetic wail that Fanny is “choking” him with her talent and wealth has aged badly. As a result, his side of the story feels lacklustre in comparison with Fanny’s determined rise to fame. But then again, this musical was always about its heroine.
The staging has the same delicious silliness as Fanny’s Ziegfeld Follies acts, with members of the ensemble regularly pirouetting in from the wings carrying bits of scenery. Director Michael Mayer’s production, like its heroine, never takes itself too seriously. Likewise, Lynne Page’s choreography tickles more than it dazzles, the exaggerated leaps and twirls gleefully embracing the humour of the show.
Ultimately, though, this is all just dressing for the title role in a bio-musical that puts Brice’s talents centre stage. Taking on this part, Smith convincingly stakes her own claim to Fanny’s driving desire: to be, as her first big number declares, “the greatest star”. The action and peripheral characters might sometimes fail to compel, but Smith is never less than astonishing.
Photo: Johan Persson.