Venue: Wolverhampton Grand Theatre

Production Run: Mon 24 - Sat 29 July 2017

Performance Reviewed: Mon 24 July (Press Night)

The news of Sheridan Smith temporarily stepping down from the role of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl’s limited London run last Summer was a nugget of theatredom that percolated out into the mainstream. The usual smorgasbord of rumours, speculation and hearsay often landed foul for Smith, fairly or not so, but amidst it all, as the West End experienced one of its rare high-profile intrigues, there was one irrepressible beacon of brightness and positivity radiating from the centre; the overwhelming response to Natasha J. Barnes, Smith’s understudy, who stepped into the role of Fanny Brice to rousing audience and critical acclaim.

Fast forward a year, and the ordeal proved itself a spot of providence for Barnes, who is now sharing the role with Smith in this UK Tour of the same production.

Styne, Merrill and Lennard’s reimagining of the life of Brice has done great things for many talents before; this is the musical that catapulted Barbra Streisand to Oscar glory, after all. As an unprecedented stepping stone for Barnes, then, this celebrated revival from Michael Mayer, with a sheen of wit and polish from the revisionist pen of Harvey Fierstein, comes pretty close to encapsulating real musical theatre magic. And, in a treat for audiences in Wolverhampton and beyond, the former understudy more than makes the role her own and proves herself as a serious theatre talent to pay heed to.

Even taking into consideration its real life heritage, Funny Girl tells a fairly routine story befitting its 1960’s big musical origins and pedigree. Fanny Brice (Barnes) is a girl with big dreams backed up by the talent to take her there. Along her journey to success, though, she’ll be dealt that ever distracting and difficult hand of love, and the complications of wanting to be more than just a ‘funny girl’. So far, so safe. The focus gradually shifts, then, from the genuine humour and bonhomie of the opening and much of the first act, to a slightly more serious, sombre and exploratory second. Love and marriage and the pursuit of happiness. There are plenty of echoes to the likes of, say, Gypsy both narratively and thematically, not least of all come the show’s powerhouse, down-but-not-defeated, defiant show-stopper of a solo finale.

So whilst Girl doesn’t even attempt to reinvent the wheel when it comes to a fairly traditional approach to musical theatre storytelling, what it does do is refine said wheel to near perfection. Brice is, unsurprisingly, the pivotal cog here - the character is a true treasure of a role. And what a treasure for Barnes, who steps out from any pre-conceived shadows to give an hilarious, affecting and supremely charismatic turn that elevates the entire production whilst also raising the roof with powerful yet intelligent and charismatic vocals. As gauche as direct comparisons may be, having seen both actresses in the role they are somewhat unavoidable, and, let’s just say, this is how you do ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’.

Barnes is ably abetted by a superb company, including a charming and suitably smooth supporting turn from Darius Campbell (remember Pop Idol?) as freewheeling love interest Nick Arnstein, and a wider cast that includes great work from the likes of Joshua Lay and Nova Skipp (in the performance reviewed) as the friend and mother who ‘taught her everything she knows’.

And if Funny Girl is to be remembered as the consummate slice of musical theatre ambrosia that it will no doubt endure as, it will be in no small part thanks to the rich set design and lighting work of Simon Gooding and Mark Henderson. Matthew Wright’s costume design, for sure, too - for this is a production that looks, sounds and feels every inch classical musical theatre. In fact, there’s very little at all to critique here; the entire thing feels effortlessly, intricately plucked from the era and restored with nary a buckle or bulb out of place. 

Style and Merrill’s score remains as delightful and infectious as ever - few will be able to resist those signature bars of ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ or ‘People’ on their journeys home, and this time round the innate comedy of the likes of ‘You Are Woman, I Am Man’ and ‘Rat-Tat-Ta-t-Tat’ have been ratcheted up and writ large by Mayer and Fierstein.

Funny Girl is a beautiful crystallisation of classic musical theatre; reassuringly conventional and familiar in ways an audience will love and take comfort in. It’s the kind of classy, high-attainment that one yearns for whenever you end up sitting through those recycled productions of Seven Brides or Annie Get Your Gun.

But perhaps even more than this, the production as featuring Barnes truly glitters with life imitating art imitating life poeticism. From understudy to accomplished leading lady completely in her own right, Barnes’ tale is every bit as delightful and deserved as Brice’s own, and, judging by her stunning, bravura performance here, it’s difficult to imagine anyone even attempting to rain on her parade anytime soon.

For once, the hype is true. A star is born.

RATING - ★★★★★

Tickets: 01902 429 212​​  / Official Website: click