SU:Media reviewer Chris Thorpe reviews the emotional rollercoaster that is Theatre Royal Plymouth's Funny Girl The Musical.
Funny Girl The Musical -The Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth
Music: Jule Styne
Lyrics: Bob Merrill
Writer: Isobel Styne
Choreographer: Lynne Page
Reviewer: Chris Thorpe
The audience of Funny Girl in the Lyric, Theatre Royal Plymouth, are in for a rare treat, as seldom are such emotionally honest performances delivered live on stage in musical theatre. Both Natasha J Barnes and Darius Campbell excelled in their lead roles as Fanny Brice and Nick Arnstein. Funny Girl, a semi-autobiographical story, was first performed in 1964 at the Winter Garden, New York, with Barbra Steisand playing Fanny Brice; it was later transferred to film, which lead to Steisand’s award winning performance in the 1968 film shooting her to stardom.
It has taken nearly fifty years for the play to be reworked and restaged, and based on this performance, that has been far too long! The story is simple, but with current resonances. Fanny Brice is the daughter of Jewish immigrants who, fleeing persecution in Europe, took Emma Lazarus' invitation of "give me your tired, your poor…” found engraved on the Statue of Liberty, and started a new life in the USA.
The play is Fanny’s story. We meet her first in her parent’s tenement in the Lower East Side, New York - not the best address. She longed for a theatrical career and whilst in possession of a good singing voice and natural comic timing, she lacked the type casting requirements of classical beauty; even her mother and aunts saw this, singing to her “If a girl isn’t pretty, like a Miss Atlantic City”. She was not to be dissuaded, and her persistence bought her to amateur night at Keeney’s Theatre in Brooklyn where she won $5 for her performance combining comedy and singing. Proving the rule that if you are trying to make them laugh, it does not matter what your face looks like!
Cut to her big break with Florenz Ziegfeld, who produced the famous review the Zeigfeld Follies, offering her a role. She meets and marries Nick Arnstein, a con-artist with too much liking for horses, cards, dice and the finer things in life he can’t afford. She has their child and then returns to the stage. Nick’s failures mirror Fanny’s successes; the more she tries to help him, the more she pushes him away. Eventually after his spell in jail, the marriage ends.
Life is breathed deeply into the character of Fanny by Natasha J Barnes’ performance. Her singing voice is as exceptional as her ability at physical comedy. Her performance is a delight to watch. Her counterpoint, Darius Campbell, has come a long way from his Pop Idol win with his time in opera and as Rhett Butler in Sir Trevor Nunn’s Gone with the Wind, perhaps most noticeably. She and Darius Campbell inject powerful emotions into both the spoken and sung text. This is a play of emotional extremes, swinging from laughter to great sadness and back again. But, between the two, the audience develops a deep empathy with the characters. Even with her husband gone, Fanny carries on singing, smiling, and making them laugh.
The story is beautifully set under a simple series of arches, reminiscent of Martin Escher’s drawings, with an ever changing backdrop. The arches change personality through skilful lighting, creating the ambience for simple but very effective set changes. The palette for the costumes is carefully chosen, helping define both the characters and scenes. Matthew Wright has done a sterling job of designing costumes that are not pastiches of period costumes, but clearly identify the character. The orchestra is often forgotten, but in a production like this one, they add so much depth to the experience that they (Alan Williams and Chris Walker) deserve recognition for giving meaning and depth to our experience.
This is musical comedy at its very best, delivered by a very talented cast, headed by an exceptionally talented Natasha J Barnes. It doesn’t matter if you like to laugh, cry, or sing, this is the play to see.