REVIEW: Funny Girl - London Revival Cast

Recording CoverOn the back of Sheridan Smith's name, the initial run of the London revival of Funny Girl sold out in a single morning. The producers announced a transfer into the West End before it had even opened at the Menier. The reviews were mostly sensational, but Smith's tenure in the role has been somewhat troubled, especially since the show transferred to the Savoy, and she missed several weeks of performances due to "exhaustion." Is Ms. Smith "the greatest star," as she sings near the top of the show? Well... perhaps this revival's cast recording doesn't play to her greatest strengths.

At the Menier, back in February, I thought Smith gave a phenomenal performance, and that the production surrounding her was mostly quite strong. Smith has a very different set of gifts than Barbra Streisand, who is still indelibly associated with this role fifty years after she created it on Broadway: Streisand is a powerhouse singer and a magnetic, larger-than-life STAR, but only a passable actress, and she can read as a little cold; Smith, on the other hand, is a superb comic actress and a passable singer, and her star quality stems from her immense personal warmth. In the theatre, Smith offered a hilariously funny, warmly charismatic star turn, and her great achievement was to bring the role – and the show – out from under the shadow of Barbra, and prove that you don't necessarily have to have a one-in-a-billion singing voice to succeed playing Fanny Brice. For all her subsequent travails, Smith's work at the performance I saw was truly brilliant.

Listening to the album, though, I'm afraid it's sometimes hard to tell how good Smith can be in the theatre. She's never less than a warm, funny presence, but on stage she makes you forget Streisand, and on record she doesn't. The out-and-out comedy numbers work well enough - You Are Woman, I Am Man is great fun, and so is Sadie, Sadie - but the ballads and the big belt-fests are more problematic. In the theatre, Smith's People is stunning, largely because of her acting choices. On the recording, it's effortful, even forced in places, and you don't get much sense of what made the live performance so transfixing. Similarly, in Don't Rain On My Parade, Smith's shortcomings are uncomfortably evident, and the big belted notes at the song's climax are at the very edge of what she can do. Who Are You Now?, rearranged as a duet with Nick with a reprise of People tacked on at the end, works better, but Smith still, unfortunately, sounded better in the theatre. She has her moments - she pulls out a hell of a belt on the last note of the finale - but nowhere near as consistently as she did at the performance I saw.

And Jule Styne's (mostly) terrific music, it has to be said, also comes across as somewhat muted here. This is a Menier production, produced on a small scale to a tight budget; there's a band of ten, which is lavish for the Menier but borderline anaemic for this kind of score. Chris Walker's orchestrations get the most out of those ten players, but there's a certain big brassy sound that you simply can't recreate when you have fewer than half the original production's complement of musicians, and unfortunately it's precisely that sound which defines this score.

There's rather more pleasure to be had in the supporting performances. Darius Campbell's Nick Arnstein, unlike his leading lady, actually comes across better on the album than he did in the theatre: Campbell is a superb singer but a bland actor, and he's playing an underwritten role, even given that Harvey Fierstein's rewrite for this production throws him a bone in the form of ‘A Temporary Arrangement', a song which was cut from both the original Broadway production and the subsequent film. In the theatre, he was a stuffed shirt with a pretty face and a nice voice; here, though, he's terrific, and his additional song doesn't feel superfluous, which it did at the Menier. And Joel Montague and Marilyn Cutts are sensational as Eddie and Mrs. Brice - they sing superbly, they both have razor-sharp timing, and their Who Taught Her Everything She Knows? might be the most completely satisfying track on the album.

In this kind of star vehicle, though, it's a problem when the strongest moment comes courtesy of two of the supporting players. Don't Rain On My Parade and The Music That Makes Me Dance should be the score's highlights, and in Smith's hands, here, they just aren't (they were in the theatre). It's not that Smith's performance on the album is bad, precisely – it's simply that it isn't the knockout star turn she delivered at the Menier. Possibly her performance has deteriorated since then, maybe she was tired when the album was recorded, but for some reason this album doesn't capture whatever it was that made her live performance so exciting. It's worth owning this album for the comedy numbers, and for Cutts, Montague, and Campbell - and even for Smith, who is an interesting performer even when she's operating at less than her best - but overall this is an uneven, less than completely convincing souvenir of the production. If all you want is to hear these songs, you're better off sticking with the original.


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