It is truly an unenviable task to step into the shoes of Hollywood legend Barbra Streisand who immortalised the part of Broadway revue star Fanny Brice, first on stage and then in her Oscar-winning film performance but Sheridan Smith triumphantly reinvents the role for a new generation of theatre lovers in Michael Mayer's excellent new production of Funny Girl, first seen at the Menier Chocolate Factory and now at the Savoy Theatre in the West End.
The story is set in and around New York City just prior to and following World War I. Fearless Brooklyn Jewish girl Fanny Brice resolutely believes she's 'a great big chump of talent!' and sets out to show the world that her star quality can win over Broadway and fulfil her American dream. She pushes, shoves and clowns her way into the limelight refusing to take no for an answer from grudging producers, first dismayed, then amazed as she creates her own crowd-pleasing kind of merry havoc on stage, and makes 'em laugh like no other. But as Fanny's star rises with the legendary Ziegfeld Follies, her stormy marriage to the tall, charismatic but wayward entrepreneur Nick Arnstein falters.
Directed by Michael Mayer, written by Isobel Lennart (newly revised by Harvey Fierstein) with lush jazz-age music by Jule Styne and witty lyrics by Bob Merrill, it is hard to believe that this is the first. London production since 1966. This, indeed, is a poignant and gutsy musical which brilliantly balances exuberance and energy with genuine emotion.
But it is Sheridan Smith's star turn as Fanny Brice which is the jewel at the heart of this production. Her performance is extraordinarily warm and alternatively heartbreaking and heart-stopping. She invests the character with a winning combination of kooky comedy, vulnerability and pathos, so that we can fully engage with her, soaring her way through the sad songs and making us laugh a lot through the comedy numbers of the Ziegfeld Follies. She nails the big numbers that Streisand seemingly made her own including the timeless paean to seeking validation People ('people who need people are the luckiest people in the world' so the song goes), and the ferocious statement of personal determination against adversity that is Don't Rain on My Parade.
This, though, is not just a one-woman show: it brings its theatrical backstage worlds to fully inhibited life, with robust support from Darius Campbell as her gambler husband, Nick Arnstein, Bruce Montague as the suave Florenz Ziegfeld, and affecting and affectionate work from Marilyn Cutts as Fanny's mother and Valda Aviks and Gay Soper as her intrusive neighbours.
The production is reinforced by Michael Pavelka's elegant, wistful design of a theatre with rows of burnished mirrors running into the wings and a crescent of lights that run right around the stage, which has the effect of further enhancing this showbiz saga.
I guarantee you will emerge from the theatre with a smile on your face and a spring in your step!
Runs at the Savoy Theatre until Saturday 8 October 2016
Box office: 0844 871 7687