Funny Girl is late 20th-century show built on the bones of the singular performer Barbra Streisand. This musical with a grand set list that has moved into the Great American Songbook and cabaret acts across the country in the decades since this show first opened in 1964, has a book suggested by facts, in the best theatrical tradition, from the life of the legendary American early 20th century vaudeville, movie, and radio performer Fanny Brice. Streisand’s Tony nominated stamp on the role that she originated on Broadway when she was 21, and for which she shared a 1968 best actress Oscar for the filmed version (in a rare tie with no less than Katharine Hepburn), is so strong that the producers of this fine quality film made the problematic decision to reference some of these details in several screens at the beginning of a Menier Chocolate Factory production filmed at Manchester Palace Theatre that will be broadcast by Trafalgar Releasing in cinemas world wide October 24, 2018.
First quibble: let this production stand on its own two feet and see if these performers and this production can tell a story. In the end, here we have a well dressed and tuneful creation with little charisma, that doesn’t make its case for reviving this material.
My Funny Girl-loving heart leaps to the sound of the overture and the fabulous treatment of the music. What is missing here, for this lover of this show on stage and on film, is the core performance that must drive this particular work of musical theater. It’s not that this performer isn’t Streisand. Heck, no one is. And the role of Fanny Brice can be tackled (and has been by replacements in the original cast and in productions around the U.S. and other parts of the world) by actresses who can convey Brice’s street smarts, inherent wit, and pretty terrific singing. Brice was, after all, the first to introduce “My Man” and “Second Hand Rose,” both later famously recorded by Streisand, in a 1921 Ziegfeld Follies revue. This production’s Fanny, Sheridan Smith, is more a bubbly Mae West than a ballsy romantic Fanny, and the show suffers for it.
Fanny was brought up in a Brooklyn saloon, feels the drive to perform without knowing her talent, cons her way onto the local Keeney vaudeville stage, and makes the audience laugh. She’s a comic, she learns (though this performance never really shows us the raucous wit Brice had, landing instead on fart jokes and underwear sightings and smirks), and starts a long engagement at Kenney’s, meets piano player Eddie who becomes a lifelong friend, is seen at Kenney’s by a ruffled-shirt wearing gambler named Nicky Arnstein (Darius Campbell) who is smitten by her talent and plants a seed in her mind ala Norman Maine for Esther Blodgett: shoot for the bigger stages. After months at Kenney’s, Fanny hears from the top of the vaudeville Big Leagues: impresario Florenz Ziegfeld wants her to audition for his Follies. Fanny immediately succeeds through Ziegfeld (and later in films and on radio, parts of her life not covered in this musical). What she works to master and can’t control is her relationships with a beautiful con man.
Scaling down her outsized humor and Brooklyn swagger to fit into the svelte and elegant swanning Ziegfeld aesthetic is a lovely point of tension in the character and person of Fanny, and is at least attempted in other performances of tunes from the score I’ve seen. Fitting an outsized personality into a conventional frame is part of the charm of this story. Can Fanny modulate her personality to fit beside her handsome yet hapless man? (He’s a gambler, her Nicky, and we know that’s not going to end well.) Can Fanny find success as a woman without conventional good looks? Sheridan Smith is adorable though a bit older and with a more mature physique than the always trim Brice had, testing the question of appearance in ways the Brice story usually does not.
Fanny proclaims her performance aspirations with a bouncy “I’m the Greatest Star” with her new best friend, the Keeney musical hall piano man Eddie Ryan (Joshua Lay), but Smith mostly giggles her way through a school girl statement of a wish rather than demonstrate her comedic or singing chops to anyone. “Cornet Man” as her first Keeney on stage performace is a swagger and a bit of bawd (pink bloomers) and hardly a show stopper in Smith’s delivery.
“His Love Makes You Beautiful” as Fanny’s first Ziegfeld solo, during which she stuffs a pillow up her dress to take ownership of the joke — remember we’re not to think she’s beautiful so her counter to the lyrics “I am the beautiful reflection of my love’s affection, a walking illustration of his adoration,” is her creation of a huge costumed pregnant belly — is a pale imitation of a Ziegfeld showgirl parade.
“Henry Street” turns Fanny’s mother’s corner saloon denizens into a kick line.
Smith sings “People” to the rafters and plays it all as embarrassed smiles rather than a proclamation of a young innocent’s belief in love.
The first act closer “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” capturing Fanny at the point of her decision to run off from her show’s tour and meet up with her man Nicky, is delivered as a proclamation through sobbing swallowed notes, bawdy delivery, and a final wink to the audience.
A sweet surprise is a duet mash up of “Who Are You Now?,” written as a solo for Fanny upon the departure of Nick for prison for his illegal scheme (was it land? who remembers?) with Nicky taking some harmony lines, and reprising “People.” It works charmingly, and perhaps because the lighting is a bit darker, it tones down Smith’s smirking and playing to the audience.
Sheridan Smith is part Sophie Tucker (hey, someone suggest the Steve Allen musical Sophie to her) and part Connie Francis (with her warm voice with the constant over-broad smile), and this doesn’t match neatly with the character of Brice. Rachel Izen’s Mrs. Brice, Fanny’s mama, is a bit of a vaudeville caricature without much warmth. Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein is pleasantly vacant charm and little sex appeal. He does sweetly perform a tune that’s added for this production and seems wildly out of place, with dancing boys and suggestive lyrics called “It’s a Temporary Arrangement” inspired by the shady land deal that gets him in legal trouble.
Costumes by Matthew Wright and sets by Michael Pavelka are suggestive, illustrative, not overwrought, with just the right kind of punch where needed. Orchestrations by Chris Walker are potent, efficiently utilize a mere 11 credited musicians — mostly horns and brass with a few strings and keyboards thrown in — and carry the bold musicality of the evening. A dancing and singing ensemble creates big pictures with a streamlined cast.
The challenge here is in the core relationship, our bouncy Fanny and our plastic Nicky. These tunes played to the balcony or to the front row, with a surface smile and rarely to other characters on the stage, makes the whole experience of an admittedly dated book, with updates by Harvey Fierstein, less than it could be.
It must be said that the exquisite look, feel, and sound of this transfer of a theatrical experience to film is a tremendous achievement for Trafalgar Releasing. The extremely well-received Menier Chocolate Factory production directed by Michael Mayer (sold out, extended, toured) and filmed during the final week of its run at the Manchester Palace, will reach huge new audiences. I can thrill to technology that delivers such fabulous sound and clarity, and its multi-camera intimacy that brings us closer than an orchestra seat while preserving the theatrical spareness of this pared-down production. I anticipate future productions that might be captured with these tools.
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© Martha Wade Steketee (October 23, 2018)