Funny Girl, Bristol Hippodrome and touring

ALMOST 20 years ago, in a hot Edinburgh Assembly Rooms with no air conditioning, a very talented member of the National Youth Music Theatre impressed a small group of us as Mrs Hardcastle, in The Kissing Dance, a musical version of She Stoops to Conquer.

A year later, when the same company brought Into The Woods to the Peacock Theatre in London, we all hoped that the same young actor would be involved, and we were not disappointed, as the wonderful Sheridan Smith made the role of the Witch her own, even in her late teens. Since then, on stage in roles as varied as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, Elle in Legally Blonde and back to Sondheim’s Woods as Little Red Riding Hood at the Donmar, with Damian Lewis as her wolf, Smith has truly shone.

She is one of those actors who is reason enough for me to go and see something, or to record it if it’s on the television, where she is also a master of her craft. She brings all of her musical and biographical experience to her portrayal of Fanny Brice, and having seen it on the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory stage I was intrigued to see how this intimate production would transfer to the huge Hippodrome stage.

I should not have had any concern – Michael Pavelka’s set has been cleverly expanded to fit larger stages while keeping the same concept of putting a stage on a stage and maintaining the sliding front curtain and scenery that glides in from the sides. The almost entirely new cast is drilled to the same perfection as the original show, with the 11-piece band, under Ben Van Tienen giving fantastic support and adding some beautiful fills and solos, particularly noticeable on clarinet and trumpet tonight. Smith is still very much the star, as indeed Brice was in reality, but every member of her ensemble has to be of the same, or higher, standard, as her, and in this case, they are – there is no weak link in this show.

Chris Peluso, so memorable as Gaylord in last year’s Show Boat, is entrepreneur (and eventually Fanny’s husband) Nick Arnstein, and he exudes style as well as having  matinee idol looks, giving us no doubt as to what Fanny sees in him.  Joshua Lay plays her best friend Eddie with great sensitivity and well-observed characterisation, whilst displaying his own highly-polished dance skills. Rachel Izen as her mother, Myra Sands as Mrs Strakosh and Zoe Ann Bown as Mrs Meeker are a delightful trio of gossips, bringing an extra layer to the drama.

However good the rest of the cast are, this show depends on the title role, and Sheridan Smith is perfect for it. For the two numbers made famous by this show, Don’t Rain on My Parade and People, and lesser known gems such as Who Are You

Now, she fills the stage and the whole sold-out theatre with emotion, fully deserving the standing ovation, so that we forget the film version completely. Having also seen Natasha Barnes play the part last year I should mention that she is playing Fanny for some of this tour, and this is good news – while not having the TV following of Ms Smith she is every bit as good – acting, singing, dancing, comedy, drama, pathos, and with just as much stage presence.

If you get a chance to see this definitive production of a classic musical as it continues its tour do not miss the opportunity, whoever is playing Fanny – they are each stars in this show.


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