Funny Girl

Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, book by Isobel Lennart
Chichester Festival Theatre production
Minerva Theatre, Chichester
(2008)

Production photo by Catherine Ashmore

Ask anyone “Who was ‘Funny Girl’?” and they are quite likely to say Barbra Streisand who took the part in the popular 1968 film of that name and very much made it her own. The original ‘Funny Girl’ though was Fanny Brice, and this is her story – not adhering strictly to the truth (it was necessary to appease surviving members of her family) but that doesn’t make it any less of a great musical with songs such as “People who love People” and “Don’t Rain on my Parade”.

Jonathan Church, beginning his third year as Artistic Director here, has chosen to put what could be a big scale glitzy musical production into the small 283 seat Minerva Theatre and to my mind the story gains from the intimate venue, feeling closer to the hearts and minds of the characters. We can see Fanny as the confident, pushy youngster, sure of her own talent, but behind the façade is the vulnerability of a girl who thinks she isn’t pretty and is uneducated - “I never got past 3B”. It is easy, too, to see behind the charm and good looks of the love of her life, to the good-for-nothing selfish creature he turns out to be.

It may be a small venue, but it is by no means a low budget creation. The small thrust stage precludes lavish sets, but designer Mark Thompson has produced some stunning backdrops and the costumes are many, varied and intricately creative, with some glamorous gowns, particularly for the Ziegfeld Follies showgirls. Scene changes are numerous – twenty three in all – and every one carried out by the cast with such speed and dexterity that one switched to another without missing a beat. Director Angus Jackson controls a very fast-paced show, keeping attention focused at all times.

Jason Carr’s orchestration follows the mood of the story, from the burlesque style of Keeney’s Music Hall in razzamatazz mode, to the sentimental “People”, and bringing in soulful saxophone and clarinet for “The Music that makes me Dance”. Re-instated also are many of the songs from the original Broadway stage play which preceded the film. Stephen Mear’s choreography is equally varied with a boisterous ‘folksy’ waltz danced around and over the kitchen table, and the military “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” tap number, with Fanny playing a comical role as usual.

Sheila Steafel is an excellent choice as Fanny’s mother, aided and abetted in her sardonic Jewish humour (you don’t have to be Jewish!) by her poker-playing cronies, most especially the forthright and inquisitive Mrs. Strakosh (Myra Sands). “What she doesn’t know she’ll find out!”.

Sebastien Torkia is family friend Eddie and what a great dancer, and husband Nick Arnstein is played by Mark Umbers – tall, handsome, a seemingly successful man-of-the-world who breeds horses (“Can’t they do it alone?”). You can see why Fanny fell for him.

Now for the star of the show – and what a star. Diminutive Samantha Spiro beguiles, enchants and captivates her audience from beginning to end with wide-eyed innocence mixed with sharp witted comedy dialogue and, as Fanny, not afraid to appear in unfeminine attire to get a laugh. Great singer too, doing full justice to every number. Her heart may be breaking, but she’s not going to let a little thing like that ruin her “Parade’. The show must go on! . .

I am in danger of losing credibility by praising everything at Chichester, but the last two years have been exceptional, with three shows transferring to the West End and Macbeth now appearing on Broadway. This year promises to be equally exciting, with a mixture of plays, both serious and lightweight, and another musical, The Music Man, staged in the large Festival Theatre. We just need the weather to continue sunny for a perfect summer.

Reviewer: Sheila Connor