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Review: Funny Girl at the Birmingham Hippodrome

This is the classic showbiz story – perfect material for our X Factor/ Britain’s Got Talent obsession with undiscovered stars and overnight success in the entertainment world. Well, Bob Merrill and Jule Styne’s magical 1964 blockbuster of a Broadway musical Funny Girl got there first.

Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl

Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl

This tale of Fanny Bryce, a young Jewish girl plucked from obscurity by a sharp-eyed impresario, whose stock in trade wasn’t just her voice but playing for comedy, is also the ugly duckling story of all time and the more potent because of that.

Fanny herself is long forgotten in actuality, and we have Funny Girl to thank for reviving memories of Fanny Bryce at all, a wise-cracking early 20th century stage star from pre-TV days. She would be an unknown now except to theatre historians if it weren’t for Styne and Merrill’s famous musical retelling of her fame.

It took another great star, Barbra Striesand, to reinvigorate her myth via the movie of the show. But on this showing the story is still gloriously alive in the capable hands of Sheridan Smith, herself no mean TV/film actress, here declaring to all and sundry that she’s a proper star of the old vintage, effortlessly triumphing in the great tradition of all those superb live performers of yesteryear.

In this non-stop vaudeville type review of her life we see the tentative early days, debuting in 1910, her talent for comedy, her subsequent stardom and her financially and romantically disastrous marriage. It’s the classic story – rags to riches, with hard work and heartbreak on the way, but of course its real claim to fame is the roster of marvellous belt-out-loud Broadway songs.

Its racy retelling in a sassy non-stop review style shows her debut, her first triumphs, her hardworking glory years and her unhappy and ill-judged private life punctuated by high-octane numbers that soar like jets taking off from the stage one after another. You’ll know some of them (People, On a Clear Day) but some of the best ones you won’t.

Beautifully lit and costumed, this breathless non-stop show also boasts skit-like sketches of her life and great dance routines throughout, plus loads of comedy. If her theatrical talent shines through, so does her ability to choose the wrong man, here Darius Campbell suavely convincing as Nick Arnstein the near-gangsterish bootlegger who was her husband, and father to her child.

I’d say don’t miss it but it’s already sold out – try queuing for returns – because this is the real deal in musical theatre, and the shouting, standing ovation at the end said it all.

Funny Girl’s success is a great theatre story in itself. Well, there’s no business like it, is there?

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