From Hedda to Cilla, Sheridan Smith loves filling big boots, but Barbara Streisand? Come on! This musical, telling the story of Fanny Brice’s rise from humble Brooklyn beginnings to become star of the Ziegfeld Follies in the 1920’s and of her ill-fated marriage to reckless gambler Nick Arnstein, is in many ways mediocre, not a patch on for example Gypsy. But it is an incredible star vehicle and, up to now, only one star (with her understudy) has ever jumped aboard it in the the UK. Courage is indeed needed, but, from her first appearance as a star-struck school girl to her last as a distraught leading lady abandoned by her husband, Smith nails it, absolutely, utterly and completely. No-one can cry real tears while wearing a broad smile on her face quite like this lady; physical comedy, gentle humour and heartbreaking drama all fit comfortably within her range and she has the audience in the palm of her hands throughout. Isobel Lennart’s book (revised by Harvey Fierstein) has plenty of wit, but the story falls into the “heard it all before” category. Don’t Rain On My Parade is easily the best of the songs (music Jules Styne, lyrics Bob Merrill) which are generally better than okay. Personally, I have always found the lyrics of People particularly excruciating, but once Smith starts to sell the song, who cares? Director Michael Mayer has assembled possibly the biggest company of actors and musicians yet seen at the small Menier and choreographer Lynne Page makes full use of the limited space. However, there is clear potential for further improvement when the show transfers to the Savoy. Marilyn Cutts as Fanny’s mother and Joel Montague as her neglected mentor stand out among the support. Little romantic chemistry develops between Smith and Darius Campbell as Arnstein, but perhaps that is how it is supposed to be. In the end, this production is only really about the funny girl herself and Smith’s performance, coming so soon after Imelda Staunton’s Mamma Rose, makes London theatregoers entitled to consider themselves “the luckiest people in the World”.
Performance date: 8 January 2016