The iconic musical Funny Girl makes its way around the UK for the first time in a classy, stylish production telling the real life story of Follie-girl Fanny Brice - whose comedic and vocal talents enabled her to rise to fame despite her unconventional appearance - and her unsettled relationship with professional gambler Nick Arnstein. Hitting the heights of success and enduring the ruin of her marriage the life of Fanny Brice has all the hallmarks of triumphant tragedy and this production hits all the right spots effortlessly.
Harvey Fierstein has reworked Isobel Lennart's book, though his efforts have done little to correct the flaws inherent in the libretto, with most characters still little more than two-dimensional figures who orbit around the central role of Fanny, but such flaws are barely noticeable when the lead actress is as strong as Natasha J Barnes certainly is.
The iconic musical score, containing the famous 'People' and 'Don't Rain On My Parade', has been slightly altered from the original Broadway production in an attempt to improve the balance between Nick and Fanny although these alterations are not always successful. Jule Styne's music, however, remains powerfully stirring as do Bob Merrill's lyrics more than 50 years later.
Michael Mayer's direction is simple, clean and luminous and the choreography by Lynne Page is equally uncluttered and purposeful. The design is spare and elegant though a rather ugly border, complete with neon trim, has been pointlessly added but this is fortunately all but hidden in the King's theatre. The musical direction is first rate and the orchestra performs the score vigorously.
Funny Girl fails or succeeds depending on the quality of its cast and this cast rises amiably to all challenges with a dynamic ensemble that produce a sustained energy and fluidity throughout the show. There are some brilliant and funny performances from Mrs Brice (Rachel Izen) and her cohorts including Mrs Strakosh (Myra Sands) and the Eddie of Joshua Lay is equally entertaining. Darius Campbell reprises his role as Nick Arnstein and elevates the part into something more memorable than is written. His strong voice, his physical presence and stillness combine to make the most out of an inadequately written part whilst adding sterling support as an arresting leading man to the primary role of Fanny Brice, shared on tour between Sheridan Smith and Natasha J Barnes (who famously rose from understudy to share the role with Smith in London). Barnes assumes the role for the Glasgow run and for those who may be disappointed not to see Smith; worry not for Barnes is beyond superb and surpasses all expectations: her acting is tender, rich, dynamic, varied and ultimately heartbreaking. Her honest, raw performance connects with the audience and follows through into her singing where her vocal abilities are displayed to astounding success. Her voice is malleable, full-bodied and assured and she remains in complete control from start to finish. Barnes has an innate charm which radiates beyond the footlights and she really is the greatest star on that stage and was visibly moved by the deserved standing ovation she received.
Funny Girl is a beautiful, entertaining and moving production, nourished with an outstanding musical score and cast. It's also lucky enough to have a stellar lead actress with astonishing acting and vocal talents in the unforgettable Natasha J Barnes who radiates that factor known as 'star quality'. If a star was indeed born in London then that star is now burning brightly on tour in this stunning production.