Natasha J Barnes as Fanny Brice – Photo ©ManuelHarlan
Funny Girl is a popular revived musical based on the true story of a theatrical love story a century ago. It tells of the romance between revue singer Fanny Brice and career gambler Julius ‘Nicky’ Arnstein. Fans of the show may be familiar with the 1968 film version where Barbra Streisand reprises her role in the original stage performance. She won an Academy award for her performance, playing opposite Omar Sharif as Arnstein. The Streisand rendition of the hit songs of the show sets a challenging reference point for any actress tackling the show today.
This production started life in the Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre in Southwark in 2015 and features a lavish and complex set that reflects the ritzy glamour of the Ziegfeld Follies theatrical spectaculars that Fanny Brice dominated for many seasons. The set doubles as a stage seen from front and back, as well as occasionally serving as a train station or country mansion. Furniture and props whizz in and out from the wings with startling rapidity.
It is perhaps fitting today to remember that this story is all about the adventures and lives of first and second generation immigrants, at a time when thousands were fleeing persecution in Europe to build new lives in America. I wonder if they would feel so welcome now.
Fanny Brice was the daughter of Hungarian immigrants, and the relationship with her saloon owning mother is a big part of the show. Fanny is played with huge energy and skill by Natasha J Barnes, her mother with great charisma by Rachel Izen. Fanny is a hugely enthusiastic and confident young singer, determined to make her mark on the New York stage, but she realises that she is more ugly duckling than graceful swan, so cannot follow the normal chorus-line to diva path to fame and success. So she becomes the Funny Girl, adding humour and pathos to her powerful singing voice. Fanny sneaks her way onto stage then steals the attention of the audience, so the promoters have no choice but to give her top billing.
Fanny comes to the attention of impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, who is bringing the glamour of Parisian Revue to the New York stage. She is soon the highest paid Broadway star and the main attraction to his series of Follies. She is helped along her way by devoted friend Eddie Ryan (Joshua Lay) who yearns to be more than her friend, but she is completely captivated by rakish rogue Nick Arnstein, who wafts in and out of her life.
In this production pop to opera star Darius Campbell is billed to play Arnstein, but tonight he was unable to perform and was replaced by understudy and Norwich born rising star Tom Partridge, who gave a faultless and charismatic performance as the handsome gambler who steals Fanny’s heart. With this rendition of the complex hero/villain Nick Arnstein he has proved beyond doubt his ability to earn top billing in musical theatre.
Much of the appeal of this show is in the way it examines the contemporary stereotypes of gender roles. Fanny is a huge star in her own right, and a very rich and successful woman, yet as her now husband Arnstein crashes from one failed venture to another her attempts to support him are viciously spurned, as even her mother tells her to respect his male mastery. His financial desperation eventually leads to crisis and heartbreak, as he is imprisoned for fraud. Fanny goes from strength to strength in her career, yet always retains her yearning as expressed in the real Fanny Brice’s famous ‘My Man’.
This is a lavish production, with a cast of 24, an 11-strong orchestra and a bewildering plethora of stage furniture and costumes. It is a straightforward but carefully crafted show that gives context for some superb individual performances, particularly from Natasha J Barnes as Fanny. Natasha is clearly emotionally engaged with the role and just occasionally seems to give in to her own emotions while portraying the ups and downs of Fanny’s life. She corpsed towards the end of the first act after sitting in her stand-in co-stars lap, and seemed to have a lot of trouble with a false moustache in a second half skit which rather distracted from the story. But her presentation is warm and human, and shows perfectly just how the original Fanny Brice was able to become so successful.
Theatrical producers thrive on shows that turn attention on their own trade, and examine what goes on behind the curtains and the stage door. If you enjoyed Cabaret or Chicago you will love Funny Girl, and if you enjoy musical theatre you won’t see a finer show for a long time.
© Julian Swainson 2017
Funny Girl – Monday June 26 to Saturday July 1, 2017. Eves 7.30pm, Mats 2.30pm Wed & Sat. Tickets £8-£48.50. Discounts for Friends & Corporate Club, Over 60s, Under 18s & Groups. Captioned Performance Wed June 28, 2.30pm. Audio Described Performance Sat July 1, 2.30pm. BOX OFFICE 01603 630000. For more info or to BOOK ONLINE www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk