I am buzzing about this Funny Girl understudy after seeing the show in London’s West End last night. If you haven’t read the tabloid goss yet, it’s a story straight out of 42nd Street: TV star Sheridan Smith was cast in the role to great acclaim, has had personal problems ever since it opened on the fringe, and after some time off during that run, was eventually signed off performing in the Savoy Theatre transfer for a month or so at the end of May. Enter first cover Natasha Barnes, best known for her small part in the Lyric Theatre production of Spring Awakening some years ago. The press around Funny Girl initially focused on the audience’s dismay at the bigger-name star’s withdrawal, with hundreds who’d booked to see Sheridan Smith asking for refunds or exchanges for later dates – but since the (non-insane) rest of the audience started trilling about Miss Barnes’ triumphant takeover, things are looking up for the producers.
I got to see Barnes in her element last night, and this is indeed a special performance sprung from unfortunate circumstances. Her Fanny Brice grows beautifully from impish, witty little Brooklyn teen to screen-siren powerhouse, giving Babs a real run for her money. It’s so hard to take on Streisand, but she did it and without a hint of imitation: the powerhouse vocals grew and grew, and by the eleven-o’clockish opening bars of The Music That Makes Me Dance, the stage took on a soft-focus, surreal glow and I had that unmistakeable tingle that only comes with a rare, magical moment in the theatre. It isn’t a one-woman show, of course; this whole production feels lush and old-Broadway, all crushed velvet and dusty footlights. A 45-year-old script crackles with wit and knowing, raking in belly-laughs from an audience with few cultural ties to Broadway, the Follies, or Jewish Brooklyn. Barnes isn’t quite matched by Darius Campbell (formerly Danesh, formerly not-Pop Idol) as charming scoundrel Nick Arnstein – his theatre chops and subtlety are a tenth of his leading lady’s – although he is undeniably gorgeous and serving some Chris-Noth-as-Mr-Big realness. If anything, the second biggest star in this show is Marilyn Cutts as an incredibly sassy mama Brice.
Anyway, the moral is: don’t book a musical to see a star – stars burn out. Book it to see an understudy – some, like Barnes, are just waiting for their chance to blaze.
Funny Girl is on at the Savoy Theatre until 8 October – Sheridan Smith is due to return mid-June.