When Fanny Brice’s boss tries to make a joke of her dowdy looks, dolling her up as a deluded bride convinced of her beauty, his comic star takes him to task. “They’re supposed to laugh at you,” shrugs Florenz Ziegfeld from the director’s booth. “With me, not at me,” she hollers back. In director Michael Mayer’s new staging of “Funny Girl,” that’s actress Sheridan Smith’s great secret, here more than ever: She plays with us, not at us, and thereby nails a role that no one’s nailed since Barbra Streisand fifty years ago. That “with” is twofold — she collaborates with us on jokes and confides in us over insecurities. We end up rooting for her like real fans.
Fanny Brice led the famous Ziegfeld Follies through the Roaring Twenties, standing out from identikit chorus girls as much for comic pizzazz as plain looks. Jule Styne and Isobel Lennart’s 1964 musical — initially titled “My Man” until good sense prevailed — charts both her career and her rollercoaster romance with suave high-roller Nick Arnstein (Darius Campbell), as the two, inevitably, pull in different directions. In that, “Funny Girl” (funny ha-ha and funny peculiar) taps into the sad strain of showbiz; the loneliness of being the one up onstage. “People who need people,” its torch song runs, “are the luckiest people in the world.”
Fanny Brice does need people, just not like the rest of us do. She finds company in an audience. Smith, who shows up at her initial audition a full head and shoulders below the chorus line, turns her into our best mate. She drops little giggles into “I’m The Greatest Star,” countering self-assurance with self-awareness, and chuckles at her own look-at-me tap-dancing, always letting us in on a joke. Onstage, she’s forever swallowing a smile, and even teeters to the edge of breaking character as a stick-on military moustache threatens to come unstuck. Her Brice will do anything for a laugh and has a laugh for everything. In fact, Smith brings such a sunny disposition to the role that raining on her parade seems a meteorological impossibility. Who needs talent when you’ve this much personality?
As it happens, talent does the emotional heavy-lifting, particularly in a second half that’s overloaded with plot. Smith lets us into Brice’s insecurities, and never lets go of her awkward edge, showing the way gaucheness grows in the mirror. With that, we realize the gumption it takes to speak up and dive in; the need to swallow self-doubt time and again. She tears up in disbelief when kissed for the first time, as if things like that don’t happen to girls like her. Brice was a Jewish-Hungarian second-generation Brooklynite. Smith is not, despite a curly brown bob wig and a slugger’s stance. Rather than Brice the outsider, taking on the world, she plays Brice the imposter. To even start on the world, she has to take on herself.
That’s eloquently drawn out in the Mayer’s staging, in particular in Michael Pavelka’s outstanding design. Against a backdrop of the Winter Garden auditorium, Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) lets us see the private fears behind the public smile, while mirrored wings reflect images of Brice’s Brooklyn home as a reminder of the person behind the iconic star.
Being one of life’s naturals, Arnstein doesn’t seem to have any such uncertainty. Spick as you like, Campbell plays him a little too tall, dark and handsome. It’s slightly off-putting: not smooth but sleazy. He speaks like a coffee commercial and cocks his eyebrow like Roger Moore. You half expect him to slip something in Fanny’s sherry. Dramatically, it’s an issue, as we expect the relationship to go wrong from the start, and Campbell’s not a subtle enough actor to gently tease out Arnstein’s own insecurities about masculinity and money. Instead, they land like dead weights.
No matter. This is Brice’s show and it’s Smith’s night. Marilyn Cutts and Joel Montague provide light-hearted support as her mother and childhood chum respectively, and Mayer marshals a strong chorus through high-kicks and sass on the small stage of the Menier. They’ll have more room in the West End next April at the Savoy, and Smith, whose fanbase has driven that transfer already, will have a whole load more playmates.