The Savoy is currently having a run of great Broadway musicals (and there's one more on the horizon when this one ends): after Gypsy and Guys and Dolls and before the arrival later in the year of Dreamgirls, comes this transfer of Funny Girl from the Menier Chocolate Factory. The first two came from Chichester; and like Gypsy, this one has a score by the great Broadway songsmith Jule Styne. All four of them share a preoccupation with life behind the scenes in various forms of performance: burlesque in Gypsy, showgirls, gamblers and the Salvation Army in Guys and Dolls, the recording studio in Dreamgirls, and vaudeville revues in Funny Girl.
In some ways Funny Girl is the most unsung of these shows. Even though Dreamgirls has never been seen on the London stage, the Oscar winning film version that starred Jennifer Hudson (co-incidentally currently to be found on Broadway in another Menier transfer of The Color Purple) is at least in recent memory. Funny Girl, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned musical that has never had a major revival since its original 1964 Broadway production transferred to London's Prince of Wales Theatre, with its original star Barbra Streisand reprising her role on the West End stage (and subsequently immortalising it on the big screen too).
While many others — including Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone on stage, and Rosalind Russell on film — had preceded Imelda Staunton as Momma Rose in Gypsy, Sheridan Smith is now taking a role that few others have ventured near since Streisand originated it (though I've seen a couple of out-of-town productions at Chichester, with Samantha Spiro in 2008, and New Jersey, with Leslie Kritzer at Paper Mill Playhouse in 2001). She's either got a clean slate to make it her own upon, or an intimidating legacy to try to challenge.
I'm delighted to report that she's made it utterly her own. Even more so than at the Menier, where the entire run sold out within 24 hours of going on sale, she offers a complex, complete portrait of a woman triumphing against the odds. Isobel Lennart's book, newly revised by Harvey Fierstein, is a fairly conventional biographical tale of a quirky Brooklyn-born Ziegfeld showgirl turned superstar who rises to the top with sheer force of her comic personality, will and talent, rather than her looks, but who has a less successful marriage to a smooth chancer and professional gambler called Nicky Arnstein.
So far, so ordinary; but Smith makes it into something extraordinary — truthful, bold and heartstopping by turns. She does the seemingly impossible with both People and Don't Rain on My Parade, two numbers that became part of Streisand's signature repertoire, claiming them for herself as shattering statements of her character's vulnerability and determination respectively. But the performance is gutsy throughout; she also does gorgeous work with the haunting, tender The Music that Makes Me Dance.
But Michael Mayer's loving production ensures it is not merely a solo vehicle for Smith, but also a fully integrated show that has some great chorus numbers (expanded since the Menier), an outstanding Darius Campbell bringing texture and vocal resonance to the somewhat underwritten role of her husband Nicky, and a touching, terrific trio of Marilyn Cutts, Valda Avis and Gay Soper as Fanny's mother and neighbours.
"But the jewel at the heart of this production is Smith...she belts her way through triumph and disaster with such full-hearted charm that you can only surrender to it."
Jane Shilling for The Telegraph
"Sheridan Smith triumphantly reinvents Brice for a new generation of musical theatre lovers, conveying with skill and heart this entertainer’s emotive blend of professional success and personal vulnerability."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
External links to full reviews from popular press