Vivienne Kennedy reviews Funny Girl, playing at Bristol Hippodrome until Saturday 25 March
“The shows here are always good, but this… this takes it to a different level.”
I couldn’t disagree with the words of the friend sitting next to me at Bristol Hippodrome this evening as we got up to stretch our legs at the end of Act One. The awesomeness continued after the interval because this Menier Chocolate Factory production of Funny Girl, under the direction of Michael Mayer, is basically a masterclass in how to do musical theatre well.
Set in New York City around the time of the First World War, Funny Girl is based on the true story of Fanny Brice, a Broadway star, film actress, and comedian, and her stormy relationship with entrepreneurial gambler Nick Arnstein.
Written in 1963 by Isobel Lennart, with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, the tale is told as a flashback, Fanny reflecting on their life as she awaits his return from prison at the end of an 18 month sentence for embezzlement. The original Broadway production (1964), starring Barbra Streisand, was produced by Fanny’s son-in-law Ray Stark.
Streisand also starred in the 1968 movie version, along with Omar Sharif as Nick. It was one of the first films I remember seeing, four generations of my family crowded around the television one Christmas Day evening.
I loved it then; I loved it a few weeks ago when I rediscovered it on Netflix; and last night, seeing the stage version for the first time, from the opening notes of the overture until the final bow, I loved every single moment – in fact, it was so good it brought tears to my eyes.
It is now Sheridan Smith I will think of whenever I find Don’t Rain On My Parade playing in my head (which is quite often). Her comic timing, her facial expressions, her voice…she is perfect in the part, there’s no other word for it.
She’s backed up by a fantastic cast including Chris Peluso as Arnstein, Joshua Lay as her long-time friend and theatrical mentor Eddie Ryan, and Nigel Barber as Florenz Ziegfield. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Rachel Izen playing Fanny’s mother and her poker-playing sidekicks Myra Sands (Mrs Strakosh) and Zoe Ann Bown (Mrs Meeker), what an amazing trio of Brooklyn broads!
As well as great tunes, played beautifully by a live band, the show also features rather fabulous choreography by Lynne Page, although I did feel for the toes of the dancers tapping in point shoes… that has to hurt. And I thought the sets, costumes and lighting, courtesy of Michael Pavelka, Matthew Wright and Mark Henderson respectively, were all spot on too; the use of mirrored wings being especially clever.
There was never any doubt that Funny Girl would get a standing ovation. They’re a common occurrence at Bristol Hippodrome but often feel somewhat forced by the action on stage – “you will get up and dance” – tonight it felt completely genuine…heartfelt even… and it couldn’t have been more deserved.
If you are already a musical theatre fan or want to try the genre for the first time, I really couldn’t recommend Funny Girl more highly but I suspect it’s going to get a whole raft of very positive reviews so don’t delay in booking your tickets, it’s only in Bristol until Saturday.
For further information, to check ticket availability, and to book online, visit www.atgtickets.com
Photo: Sheridan Smith (Fanny Brice) – image by Johan Persson