Fanny Brice's prowess and fame were arguably due
to her impeccable comic timing and clown-like performances, combined with a
powerful singing voice that could both move you with a Torch Song (her version
Smith has rightly received many plaudits for her performance and excels when playing the clown – bringing a self-effacing, yet knowing cheekiness
The story here is pretty standard, old-school musical fare that most will know. Jewish girl with overbearing mother wants to be a star but, as the opening song If A Girl Isn't Pretty states, struggles (very briefly here) because she doesn't have the moves or the looks to fit in. (Suspend disbelief as no amount of frumpy dresses and curly wigs can hide the fact that Smith actually is gorgeous). By using to her advantage the fact that she is different, she hones her creative comic ideas with her leading lady voice to eschew the chorus and become the highest-paid star in Ziegfield's Follies at the time.
Whilst her ingrained underlying lack of self-esteem drives her performing ambitions, it also makes her fall for womanising gambler, Nick Arnstein (due to feeling he is out of her league as His Love Makes Me Beautiful); living for him, paying for him, over-cosseting him and ultimately – unsurprisingly – losing him. Standard ‘poor girl does good, falls in love, gets hurt’ fodder – it's dated, creative with its embellishment of historic fact (the real Brice was actually born into money and the real Arnstein far from attractive), but jolly and enjoyable stuff of its time.
It's all played very simply and – whilst I never saw its previous incarnation at the Menier – feels like a rather small show to be on the Savoy stage. There's no great sets, lights or spectacle, with even the performances as the Follies staged with them singing upstage to a simply painted backdrop to represent the theatre, rather than any glitz or glamour. The fancy hotel room where Nick and Fanny consummate their relationship (in a highlight of the show during a very well-timed funny routine of You Are Woman, I Am Man) doesn't show anything to represent his wealth or extravagance, being little more than a table and a chaise longue. And the moving walkways allow for very many quick exits and entrances that don't allow us to fully enjoy the obviously highly-skilled ensemble dancers. It doesn't take away from the story but also doesn't take full advantage of the opportunity to create the excitement of the razzmatazz that fame brought her.
The whole production is lots of fun but ignores the depth or the emotion that is also part of her story. Smith has rightly received many plaudits for her performance and excels when playing the clown – bringing a self-effacing, yet knowing cheekiness, a glint in her eye and a deep register to her voice that makes us immediately love her and laugh with her rather than at her. It's easy to see why everyone admires this actor's talents as everything she touches is so grounded in a down-to-earth reality that we think we know her and want to spend time with her. She clearly seems to enjoy the more comic songs - particularly Sadie, Sadie and Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat which her pop star singing voice suit well and allow her to mug to the audience to her heart's content. Her skill is in sharing this enjoyment with us, and so in turn increasing our own.
What's lacking is the emotional empathy in her personal downfall and the goosebump-inducing pain that could come from the big show moments. Maybe her throat was suffering on this night after such a time in this demanding role, as she seemed to struggle to reach the high notes and relied on throwing her head back to do the best she could. The famous numbers we're listening out for – People, Don't Rain on My Parade and the echo of that song in the finale – come across as enjoyably, nicely sung pop songs rather than having any power to demonstrate her underlying times of sadness, desperation or indeed, passion. They're pleasant on the ear but don't reach the heart – particularly when she didn't hit the last, potentially audience-moving note of the final song of the night.
Perhaps the decision here was to keep it simple and play to her undeniable strengths in order that she has obviously been able to make the role her own (as it's nigh on impossible to better a singing performance best known as Streisand's) – and that's a fair decision to make. The other cast members all perform well with the arguably flat roles they are given – with Darius Campbell suitably, attractively bland as Arnstein (though never quite believably in love) and Joel Montague giving a fine comic turn as Eddie Ryan (only lightly touching on his probable unrequited love for Fanny). A big shout must also go to the ensemble here though, with exceptionally tight dancers and strong singing performances (particularly Luke Fetherston and Philip Bertioli as the 'Cornet Men').
But the comparisons with the recent production of Gypsy that are being made – particularly Imelda Staunton's performance that took you from laughter to pain to tears within moments – are ill-placed, as to compare a thoroughbred with a good 'also-ran'. Here, you don't feel the pain or ride the emotion – but maybe you're not meant to. Simply let it wash over you and enjoy a pleasant evening, particularly enhanced by Smith's natural, warm and comic performance. There's no denying that Sheridan Smith has created a role that is the funniest of funny girls.