As record-breaking West End musical Funny Girl at long last rolls into Birmingham Hippodrome, it is not without a certain degree of hype. At first glance, this a very traditional 1960s musical – young girl Fanny Brice is convinced she is ‘The Greatest Star’ but her road to success is not without its obstacles. Brice breaks the mould with her comic performances, yet strives to be recognised as more than a ‘Funny Girl.’
The first act is a riot; a succession of vaudeville numbers and slapstick comedy as Brice grows in fame and confidence. The second act takes on a much more personal and sombre note, examining love, marriage, happiness and that intriguing divide between our public and private personas.
However, in this production of Funny Girl, a traditional, run-of-the-mill musical is transformed into an absolutely outstanding performance. Every single element of the production comes together to provide a sublime evening, yet the success of Funny Girl is almost entirely defined by Sheridan Smith’s portrayal as leading lady Fanny Brice.
In a role that is no stranger to huge success (earning Barbara Streisand an Oscar for the 1968 film), Sheridan Smith gives what will surely be recognised as a landmark performance in the history of musical theatre. The inimitable Fanny Brice is brought to life by Smith from her endearing, awkward giggle, trademark facial expressions and infectious sense of fun. Just like the original Brice, Smith’s warm, generous performance forges an instant connection with the audience, making you feel as though each beaming smile is directed specifically at you. In this demanding role, Smith’s energy never falters; she tackles the big band numbers and physical humour with unending gusto, always finding time for an extra quip or to share a cheeky sideways glance with the audience.
Smith’s performance is both bold and understated, reflecting the conflicted private and public sides of Fanny Brice. In the second act, Smith’s delicately nuanced performance is a heart-wrenching portrayal of the breakdown of a marriage. Smith uses tiny details – a catch of breath, or a bravely forced smile – to capture a tidal wave of emotion. Powerful, beautiful and effervescent, Smith’s performance as Fanny Brice is an absolute triumph.
Smith is supported by an exceptional cast. Darius Campbell is a suave Nick Arnstein, sweeping both Brice and the entire audience off their feet with his deep, rich voice. Joshua Lay’s Eddie Ryan and Rachel Izen’s Mrs Brice shine as the faithful support system who taught Brice ‘Everything She Knows’. Funny Girl is built upon glitzy, large-scale chorus pieces, and it is wonderful to see every single member of the ensemble fully committed and evidently relishing their role in the fabulous musical.
The entire production is extremely slick, from Michael Mayer’s fast-paced, fluid direction, to Lynne Page’s stylish, beautifully-performed choreography and opulent set and costume design from Michael Pavelka and Matthew Wright respectively.
Big band numbers and vaudeville comedy send the audience home on cloud nine, humming the irresistible ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade.’ Smith’s emotional finale is the icing on the cake; a glorious display of defiance, confidence and optimism which inspires the audience to leap to their feet for the standing ovation, which has been inevitable since the very first scene. It’s really a case of what’s not to like in this example of musical theatre perfection.
Funny Girl is at Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday 13 May. The tour is sold out but you can contact Box Office for returns!