Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Music by Jule Styne
Lyrics by Bob Merrill
Book by Isobel Lennart
Revised Book by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Michael Mayer
The capital’s love affair with Broadway's Golden Age continues apace as Michael Mayer's visionary interpretation of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill's Funny Girl opens at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory prior to a limited run at the Savoy.
Imelda Staunton may have just wowed in Styne and Sondheim's Gypsy, but hard on her heels is Sheridan Smith's take on Fanny Brice. In a role that famously demands an unconventional beauty - and which, from both Broadway and Hollywood launch pads Barbra Streisand was rocketed into the highest of stellar orbits - Smith has enormous shoes to fill. But from the moment she eases into her first (and so wonderfully titled) solo I'm The Greatest Star, it is clear that Smith is arguably unsurpassed amongst her peers, offering a performance that defines a perfection in voice (and wow, that belt) combined with an innate ability to act through song, dialogue and sheer presence. From the moment the irresistible Gatsby-cum-cad Nick Arnstein enters her life, we want to shout out to her "don’t do it" and yet Smith nails Brice's complex cocktail of talent, chutzpah and a vulnerable need to be loved as well as to be famous, with aplomb.
And then of course there's the show’s legendary songs. In tackling People, Smith simply shatters the Streisand mould and makes the song her own. Likewise, she scales the immensity of Don't Rain On My Parade and The Music That Makes Me Dance with a sublime confidence that is more than matched by her stunning charisma and ability.
Alongside Smith, Mayer's company of actors match her excellence. The Brooklyn-ese shtick that is the acutely observed card-playing trio of her mother and her two elderly friends, defines New York, Jewish, gossiping yet caring grandmothers, to a tee. First class work from Marilyn Cutts, Valda Aviks and the venerable Gay Soper.
Bruce Montague's Florenz Ziegfeld captures the vision and gravitas of the legendary Broadway impresario, whilst Joel Montague's Eddie is another finely observed portrait of friendship and vision, brilliantly executed on stage.
And as the dapper rogue Arnstein, Darius Campbell is sensational. His persona easily proving a match for Smith, Campbell manages Arnstein’s arc, from majestic to emasculated - as his wealth ultimately collapses - with a voice of magical resonance.
The show's design (bravo Michael Pavelka) is an ambitious conceit, with moving belts that cleverly shift the cast through time and location - and a nod too to Campbell Young's sensational wig work alongside Matthew Wright's costume. Be it Broadway, Brooklyn or Baltimore, the era's style is perfectly captured.
Harvey Fierstein hones the original book to a finer sharpness – Funny Girl being possibly Fierstein's greatest show in town at the moment - whilst Alan Williams has wrought a thing of beauty from Styne's magnificent score. If Lynne Page's choreography is at times a touch ambitious for the Menier's confines, it will probably mature into perfection into the run.
This production portentously hints at greatness and its omens are good. Firstly, the theatre it's in. With The Color Purple, the Menier are proving that they can produce a Broadway show and ship it back across the Atlantic better than it was before. Secondly in Michael Mayer, an accomplished Tony-winner who must surely know that he is sowing awesome seeds in this classic work. And finally in Sheridan Smith herself. An accomplished stage and TV talent on this side of the pond, just watch Smith’s Funny Girl trajectory to prove she truly is the greatest star.
Sold out at the Menier until 5th March 2016 – Then at the Savoy Theatre from 9th April until 2nd July
Photo credit: Marc Brenner
Photo credit: Marc Brenner