11 December 2015 (Fri), Menier Chocolate Factory
This is the first big-time revival of the show since its initial run in the mid 1960s, meaning anyone who saw it as a teenager then would now be retirement age. The first question on anyone’s mind is: who’s going to play Barbra? Streisand’s long shadow over the role makes casting extremely tricky; the aborted attempt at a revival a few years ago in the US was to star a Streisand impersonator from Glee, which would have been a disaster – why get a second-hand Barbra instead of a first-rate something else? The situation applies as well to London, where Streisand repeated her success after her sensational Broadway run and just before the hugely popular movie. While it’s true the show ran for a year-and-a-half on Broadway after Streisand left (with the wonderful Mimi Hines), that was before Barbra became a legend and diva nonpareil with the film, to the extent that many people think that the show and songs were written specifically for her (they weren’t). I don’t think even Fanny Brice herself could be cast these days. So when tickets for the revival by the estimable Menier Chocolate Factory went on sale, the entire run was snapped up within 90 minutes by audiences curious to see the original musical and the actress who dared take on La Barbra. The show was announced for a West End transfer before it even opened, which signals a lot of confidence on the part of the producers. I managed with difficulty to snare a seat on a Friday night. Yeah, I was excited. Even this theater’s usual pitiful program didn’t dampen things.
The actress who sparked all the excitement was Sheridan Smith, a blonde British shiksa who’s about as far from a Jewish Brooklyn girl as high tea from gefilte fish. Even given the impressive range in her career – her two Oliviers are for Legally Blonde and Terence Rattigan’s wartime-era Flare Path – this one seemed a stretch. Still, the word was good, and I was ready for anything.
What a performance! She was nothing short of tremendous, a big ball of energy lighting up every scene. She has a superb comic sense and seems to be making up the lines as she goes, such as her joy when she discovers that pâté is just chopped liver. She nailed Fanny’s American and Jewish and New York sides perfectly not only in accent, which was letter perfect, but in her gestures and attitude. While she’s not a true belter, she knows how to deliver a number, and then some – thirty-six expressions don’t begin to cover it. She had total control of the stage and us. When she sang “People” and “Don’t Rain On My Parade”, the most iconic songs in the show, she sang them as drama rather than as showstoppers, making every word believable. Quite an accomplishment. And that’s not to mention the comic numbers and terrific ballads that weren’t even in the movie, above all the supreme “The Music That Makes Me Dance”.
The question: Is she another Streisand? Well, no, she’s Sheridan Smith, and thank goodness for that. She played the character, as opposed to Streisand playing Streisand (at least in the film). Easily the most dominating female performance I’ve seen since Reba McIntyre in Annie Get Your Gun. I hope they can convince Equity to let her reproduce her performance for the inevitable transfer. This is absolutely worthy of the New York or any stage.
And that’s a good thing, because the book is not up to the level of the performances. The biggest problem is the underwritten role of Nick. The show never establishes why this stud would fall for a young, up-and-coming and not-so-beautiful comedienne, whose working-class background is a world away from his champagne life. He’s at least one song short of being a well-rounded character – maybe they can borrow “I Met A Girl” from Bells Are Ringing. He’s more a device than an individual. The situation of a doomed marriage between an ugly duckling protagonist and her fabulous-looking failure of a mate was much better realized the other night in Beautiful. Actually, the message was a bit muddled here, as Fanny herself ignored the plain-looking guy who clearly adored her in order to go with the handsome Nick – so maybe her problems were karma. I thought that would be resolved somewhere along the way, but I guess there’s only so much they can do with a biography (though that didn’t stop them in Gypsy – wonder what Arthur Laurents, who was originally slated to write the show, would have done with this one). The book was hilarious overall despite flagging somewhat in the second act, but the lack of a credible love interest hurt badly since that was the main dilemma for both Fanny and the show. Still, there is that score, even better in context than I remembered and delivered here with real heart. That makes up for a lot of flaws.
One good point, and a big improvement over the movie, was the ending. Fanny first sings the title song (which suspiciously wasn’t on the original cast album), threatening to end the proceedings on a downer. Then she picks herself up and does a rousing and defiant reprise of “Don’t Rain On My Parade”. That’s more like it: it underlines the never-say-die spirit we’ve seen to now and rescued what could have become a maudlin tear-jerker.
On the acting side, Smith had ample support from her hilarious mom (Marilyn Cutts) and her old lady friends, all with spot-on accents and mannerisms. Joel Montague as the male friend who was in love with Fanny was very good as well. The chorus girls were unusually tall, which the diminutive Smith (shades of Kristen Chenoweth and Elaine Paige) played to terrific comic effect. Nick, who was super-tall himself, was satisfactory but never found a distinctive take on the role, though that could be the book’s fault. I really wish Harvey Fierstein, who updated the book, had been more aggressive in tackling this problem; he seems to have done little more than added some gags. The supporting actors were excellent across the board, including one actor who was apparently in the original London production 50 years ago. Direction-wise, the production made as good a case for the show as I could imagine.
The choreography was great fun but very tight in that theater, practically bursting off the stage. The choreographer is presumably eyeing the West End transfer, which is putting the cart before the horse. It would have nice if he had thought of us and designed the show for this stage for the money we’re paying. I suppose it’s a good excuse to see it again in the new theater, where it will presumably have more performers and maybe more elaborate sets to fill the larger space.
For all that, it was great to see the show in this intimate space, especially with such stellar performances. While this is no great shakes as a musical, it’s a super-entertaining night at the theater. Strongly recommended.