Menier Chocolate Factory, London – until 5 March 2016
Then transferring to West End’s Savoy Theatre from 9 April
People, people who need people are, allegedly, the luckiest people in the world. I’d argue that those who are emotionally and financially self-sufficient have a hell of a bigger reason to feel lucky than those who depend needily on others for their wellbeing. But I’m not a character in a musical – and neither, really are the people who need people who appear in Funny Girl a narrative so far removed from the actual history of kooky kosher comedienne Fanny Brice and her deeply dodgy gangster hubby Julius ‘Nicky’ Arnstein as to be a complete fiction.
As a fiction, it’s minimal: she gets a job, she gets a man, he goes to prison and when he comes out, he dumps her. The end. Except it takes two and a half hours during which she sings ‘that’ song four times.
The Fanny Brice biography and book for Funny Girl were written by communist activist Isobel Lennart but turned out to be her last as she died in a car crash three years after the movie version – but she had been the screen writer of Ingrid Bergman’s Inn of the Sixth Happiness and Doris Day’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies so it’s something of a puzzle why Funny Girl turns out to be such a chewy old turkey of a script. Both the original stage play and movie were produced by Fanny Brice’s son-in-law Ray Stark who found it all but impossible to appease various members of Fanny’s extended family, including Nick Arnstein who was very eager to instigate a lawsuit, and ensured that only the most sanitised version of the story made it to the stage.
This isn’t unusual – Rose Hovick, mother of Gypsy Rose Lee and centerpiece of the best-scored musical of the last century was herself a gun-toting triple-homicide nut-job but such things don’t play well in ‘Everything’s Comin’ Up Roses’ so her story was also toned down for stage consumption. But, unarguably, Brice was nothing like the Streisand screen portrayal and Arnstein was a thoroughly nasty piece of work who far from doing a little lightly deceptive bond dealing as shown in the musical was part of a gang that stole $5 million in Wall Street securities, something like $250m today.
He was six-foot-six, though, so even though he dwarfs Sheridan Smith, Darius Campbell is fair casting for Nick, and delivers a charming, genuinely seductive performance although without a hint of menace. Smith herself gets closer to the raw-elbowed determination and desperate clowning of Fanny Brice than Streisand and sings with power and with feeling, but despite Harvey Feirstein’s additional material, because the script is still so weak she compensates by playing up her own comic turn to the adoring fans in the audience rather than delivering Fanny Brice’s act. It’s doubtful whether modern audiences would find Brice’s routines savoury in any case – she tended to specialise in racial stereotypes until on the advice of Irving Berlin (a friendship also excised from the musical) she settled on a homely Jewish woman in unfamiliar situations – a Jewish squaw, a Jewish Peter Pan, or the Jewish favourite of a Sultan “who appreciates a little kosher meat”.
Best support comes from Marilyn Cutts as Fanny’s mother and her card-playing coterie of Brooklyn bubbes Gay Soper and Valda Aviks, and from the energetic hoofing of Joel Montague as her adoring but unreciprocated mate Eddie Ryan, Buttons to Smith’s Cinders.
Michael Pavelka’s photorealistic set has class and a foretaste of the glamour of its future location at the Savoy, and Lynne Page’s acrobatic choreography also aches for a more expansive stage: choosing six tall leggy chorus girls to surround Smith is an elegant joke.
In Jule Styne’s far superior score for Gypsy, Louise and June sing “we aren’t the Lunts, I’m not Fanny Brice” – well, neither are Smith and Campbell, but they’re still very watchable.
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