Review – Funny Girl – Menier Chocolate Factory (then Savoy)

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It’s nice to go see a show that has been already committed to a transfer (not to mention sold out for the entire run), as this pretty well guarantees that you’re going in to see a winner – and even if it’s not a five star show, you get a whole extra star’s worth of smugness for being able to get in while the seats are cheap. Yep, I’m talking about Funny Girl, about the only show I can remember that not just sold out most of its run before it opened, but had sold out months of its transfer to the big stage as well. So, yes, when a passel of “well these are really restricted view but you can sort of see the stage most of the time” seats came up for grabs one day, I jumped all over it. You see, it pays to keep going back to the website and hoping something will come up, especially for tickets at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Since it opened, most of the complaining I have heard about Funny Girl has been about how it’s just not as good as the movie, really. And by this, what people mean (and sometimes say directly) is that Sheridan Smith is not as powerful a singer as Barbra Streisand. But you know what? She’s a more compelling Fanny Brice. There, I’ve said it, now complain away. The feeling I came with when I finished seeing the movie ever so many years ago was that it was hard to see much of a tragedy in Funny Girl because the lead came off so full of egotism that you couldn’t really root for her to succeed. I felt Barbra’s own ego was taking over her ability to portray Fanny as a sympathetic character, someone with any weaknesses at all.

But Sheridan Smith, now, she’s a whole ‘nother story. Every self confident word that comes out of her mouth has a tint of “but I’m not really all that, am I, I just want to be more,” and this makes her greatest flaw as a person, her blind love for rascal Nick Arnstein (Darius Campbell), a completely understandable gap for someone who desperately needs to feel like she is actually loved. Fanny needs to get external affirmation in a world where she is constantly struggling with not being beautiful enough. I mean, how many other women out there have struggled with being told “but you have a nice personality” when what you want to hear is “you’re so gorgeous I can’t believe my good luck that you’re even talking to me?” For the most handsome man she’s ever met to treat her like a shining diamond, well, I was absolutely sucked into Fanny’s happiness and, even knowing the end, I was able to buy the emotional arc of the story and this comes down to Sheridan Smith’s performance (well and a good book). I did not like the movie of Funny Girl but this live stage performance … well, it gives you all the feels, and that’s what I want when I fork over for a musical, to walk out swooning with emotion.

Let’s not pass over the rest of the show, though, because this is not a production that hangs on one person and crumbles on the edges. I loved loved loved, all of the scenes set in Brooklyn with Fanny’s mom (Marilyn Cutts) and her group of gal pals: I went with a Jewish American friend and those scenes honestly made us homesick. And the dance scenes were BANG POW PIZAZZ! I was never expecting there to be so much tap dancing in this show! It all seemed a wee bit crowded on the Menier stage, but hey, give me dancing that’s so big it spills over, now THAT’S what I want in a musical!

Oh, wait, didn’t I say I wanted something else in a musical? Well, in this case, really, the only thing I really wanted is for Nick Arnstein to be softer on the edges. Some of the problem is doubtlessly how he’s written – apparently he was actually far more of a scoundrel than they were allowed to show him when this show was created (due to possible lawsuits), but I think, well, if Alec Guiness can make me believe in the Force, Darius Campbell should have been able to make me believe in Nick Arnstein. He just didn’t seem to have any depth or reality to him, like someone had once seen Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind on a bad video tape and then tried to make that in to a three-dimensional being. I suspect he needs to be written a little meaner and more scheming, and, without those words, Cambpell needs to find a way to bring the character to life that’s outside of what’s on the page.

Overall, though, this was a great night out and I’d go back to see it again – and doubtlessly will once it hits the Savoy.

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 19th, 2015. It continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory until March 5th 2016, then moves to the Savoy Theater in April. Buy your tickets either directly from the Menier or from the ATG website as there’s lots of scalping going on and no need to play that game.)

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