After a controversial season in London's West End, the Menier Chocolate Factory production of "Funny Girl" has hit the road for a tour of the UK, which I believe is the first (correct me if I'm wrong). The bio-musical is iconic as being the musical that propelled Barbra Streisand into super-stardom with her superlative recordings of the numbers and Oscar-winning performance in the movie version helping to define the musical as one of the most dangerous for any producer to stage, given that Streisand's shadow looms vast over the musical.
I previously saw the West End production and wrote about it here. I also recorded my first attempt at viewing the show when I was fated to attend that performance and that can be viewed here.
I hadn't expected Sheridan Smith to be part of the tour when I booked my ticket but, as it turns out, it was announced that she would share the role with Natasha J. Barnes who famously stepped in to the role following Smith's troubles. Smith, it was announced, would play Edinburgh. I won't lie, but my heart sank a little. Still, I decided to go in with an open mind and with a view to enjoy the show as much as possible. It was later announced that Darius Campbell, who was not scheduled for the venues where Smith was to perform, would now take on his West End role in Edinburgh (this may be as the actor is a Scot and Edinburgh would have been the only Scottish date he would not have done) and while I was quite happy to see another performer's take on the role (in this case it was originally announced that Chris Peluso was to star alongside Smith) it was not an unwelcome announcement.
The production started late, which is something that continually annoys me - if the ticket says a 7.30pm start then that is when it should start. No doubt late-comers were the usual culprit and I am all for closing the doors and refusing entry to those who cannot be bothered to take their seats before the announced curtain up time, whether it be through laziness on their part (I'm sure some people think it's like going to the cinema where there will be half an hour of trailers) or whatever. I totally understand there are events which one cannot control but a line has to be drawn somewhere.
The production has undergone only minor changes between its run in the West End and the new tour and these are for practical purposes - in London travelators were used and these are replaced on tour by amended choreography and by the use of trucks to move set pieces. That and the ol' manual labour. The set is now also framed by a large border created to fill out the size of the set on the various stages on the tour. Unfortunately this border is rather blandly ugly and doesn't feel a natural part of the set. The background of the train station in the act I finale is also changed as the original West End version replicated the art deco styling of the Savoy theatre but, for whatever reason, it was decided not to duplicate this on tour.
It appears that the orchestra is pretty much the same size as that used in London but, surprisingly, the sound they produce is fuller and richer than was heard at the Savoy. Whether this is through the sound design or the acoustics of the Edinburgh Playhouse, I do not know. But the music sounded great.
In fact, much of the production looks more at ease in this touring production. Where the Savoy production looked a little cramped at times, here it allowed to breathe. Of course, this may change depending on the venue, but in Edinburgh at least it worked better.
The cast are as dynamic and as strong as that which featured in London and there are a number of stand out performances including the Mrs Brice of Rachel Izen, whose delivery is underplayed yet striking; Martin Callaghan's Mr Keeney, whose warmth and comedic timing is top notch and the Eddie of Joshua Lay, who is physically quite different to London's Eddie but is equally as adept vocally and choreographically. The relationship with Fanny is perhaps not so natural as it could be but this is perhaps due to the physical differences.
Darius Campbell's Nick Arnstein is better than ever and his deep, rich voice is stirring and one of the strongest in the production. His physical dominance is perfect for the role and he is equally at home with the odd comedic line as he is with the dramatic arc of Nick's fall from grace.
Shouldering the burden of the show is Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice, the 'Funny Girl' of the title. Smith is markedly better than she was in London and her performance is composed less of the mugging that she was guilty of previously and she relies more on an honest, emotional take and the physical attributes of Brice's comedy. Here she is far more in control than I previously witnessed and is thus much more successful in her dramatic execution. Her vocals still remain her weak spot and her voice audible declines in strength and power as the show progresses, many crescendos passing by unmarked by Smith though her innate charm and warmth wins the audience over. I still think her solo songs should be lowered for her but if Smith were to undertake some serious vocal lessons to improve her technique and her breathing then this could be a most stunning portrayal. But as it is ...
That said, Smith continues to win raves from other reviewers and the audience (no doubt familiar to her via her many television performances) but I simply cannot detach one aspect from the whole when there are less famous persons who would be crucified for the same lesser skill levels.
The direction and choreography work well though the revised book continues to make little difference to the musical. Jule Styne's music remains some of the strongest and is served well throughout. The added songs, again, add only minor improvements to the story-telling and the reworking of 'Who Are You Now' into a duet still irks somewhat, though giving Fanny and Nick an emotional duet is nice.
All in all the touring production, and its leading lady, is a sterling production of equal quality to the London production with some aspects even improved.