Review – Crazy For You, Festival Theatre Chichester, 23rd July 2022

Crazy For YouJust as the ecstatic applause at the end of the first act was dying down, Mrs Chrisparkle turned to me and said This is the kind of show you usually hate – and she’s totally right. I like my musicals to be meaty. To pose problems. To issue challenges. To delve deep into the heart of humanity and winkle out nuggets of truth so that you come out of the show a different person from the one you went in as. Crazy For You does absolutely none of those things. And it is, quite simply, a glorious delight from start to finish.

Bobby and the GirlsDirector and choreographer Susan Stroman, who had worked on the original 1992 production, was already making plans for a revival of this Gershwin extravaganza way back when none of us had ever heard of Covid. Then, with all the theatres shut, and not much hope for the future on the horizon, it naturally retreated to her back-burner. That is, until the fickle hand of fate prompted Chichester Artistic Director Daniel Evans to ask her if she would bring the show back to Sussex. And, with a superbly talented cast and production team to bring it to reality, this early juke-box musical (it feels like it should be from the 1930s but it isn’t) is gracing the stage of the Festival Theatre, and sending its audiences on their merry way home with a spring in their step and pretend tap-shoes on their feet.

Irene, Bobby and LottieAs I indicated at the beginning, the plot is very simple. Theatre-mad Bobby Child is sent by his bank-owning Mamma to Nevada to foreclose the mortgage on an inactive little theatre way out west. But it’s not in Bobby’s nature to ever close a theatre down, especially when it’s owned by the father of the only girl in the town, the feisty Polly, with whom Bobby instantly falls head over heels in love. The rest of the show revolves around his attempts to both woo Polly and also impersonate Bela Zangler, the impresario, in a last-ditch attempt to stage a show so that audiences can return and the theatre can become financially solvent again. But I wouldn’t worry too much about the plot. It’s really not important.

Bobby and the BoysThe show takes Gershwin songs from a number of their Greatest Hits, including I Got Rhythm, Someone to Watch Over Me, They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Nice Work if You can Get it, Embraceable You, and plenty of other showtoonz. Musical Director Alan Williams leads a fantastic 16-person band – which is a pretty big quantity of musicians – and you can instantly tell how full and rich the sound is. Before any action takes place, during the overture, Ken Billington’s lighting design puts the shimmering front curtain through its paces with a range of warm exciting colours, preparing you for the visual feast to follow. All these visual and audio cues really gee you up in expectation of a great show, so the audience is truly buzzing even before the performance truly gets underway.

Slap That BassAnd it’s a show of sheer enjoyment. Ken Ludwig’s book is full of fun; silly jokes that hit perfectly, rewarding routines, such as the two Zanglers mimicking each other in a mirror, cartoon effects like the tweety-bird sound when a character hits their head, and there’s an early contender for the Best Performance in a Musical by a piece of tumbleweed award, as the aforementioned stage contraption merrily makes its way across the Deadrock landscape. Each piece of comic business, each interactive musical moment, each comic characterisation goes towards making the show a thing of total bliss. And, to be fair, yes, the substance of the show is lightweight and fluffy and doesn’t make you think again about the Human Condition. However, unlike some juke-box musicals, the structure actually works, and the choice of songs does largely make sense, with many of them either forwarding the plot or giving us a further insight into the singer’s character. And there are plenty of reputable musicals that don’t achieve that.

The FodorsAs you would expect from Susan Stroman, the choreography throughout is dynamic, thrilling, inventive, comical, and passionate, and makes big demands on the star performers who rise to the occasion superbly. Chichester had already taken Charlie Stemp to its heart after his rise to fame and fortune in Rachel Kavanaugh’s Half a Sixpence six years ago, so it was no surprise that he received a star round of applause on his typically ebullient first entry on stage. Mr Stemp is a master (if not THE master) of song-and-dance on stage, and responds to Ms Stroman’s demands with all the brilliance you’d expect. But he is more than matched by a fantastic performance by Carly Anderson as Polly, who has a dream of a voice and wonderful comic timing, and together they are pretty much matchless.

PollyThere’s also an impressive physical comedy performance from Tom Edden (you’d expect nothing less from him) as Bela Zangler, Merryl Ansah is a delightfully tricky Irene, with a terrific surprise up her sleeve that comes later in the second act; Gay Soper is wonderful as Bobby’s frosty mother Lottie, and there’s excellent support from Mathew Craig as the grumpy Lank Hawkins, Don Gallagher as Polly’s living-in-the-past father Everett, and from Adrian Grove and Jacquie Dubois as the frightfully British Fodors, unexpectedly arrived to review Lank’s Hotel. The boys and girls of the ensemble are also fantastic, Belawith many hilarious and endearing vignettes, as well as brilliant singing and dancing skills. Sadie-Jean Shirley, Kate Parr, Mark Akinfolarin and Joshua Nkemdilim in particular stand out, but everyone pours their hearts and souls into delivering a magnificent performance.

Like The Unfriend a few weeks ago, Chichester have come up with another tremendous triumph that is totally West End-ready. We went as part of a group of eight and every single one of us adored every minute of it. That’s got to be a good sign!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory, 28th February 2016

Funny GirlYes, gentle reader, I was one of those hopefuls poised at their computer on the 17th August last year, the day when Funny Girl tickets went on general sale. The run was sold out in an instant. I was lucky enough to procure our favourite Menier combination of Row A for a Sunday matinee, for very nearly the end of the run – it closes this weekend. But of course, the production is transferring to the Savoy, as was announced at the end of October – before it had actually opened, such was the public’s faith in the show; a twelve-week, limited engagement from April 9th. And now, even before the transfer has opened, it’s been extended by another three months, taking it to October. That is how it stands as the moment. There aren’t many shows that successful before even a dress rehearsal has taken place.

Sheridan SmithI had no previous knowledge of Funny Girl apart from People and Don’t Rain on my Parade. Neither of us have ever seen the film, nor any other stage production. I knew it was about the life of Fanny Brice, but I didn’t know anything much about her either. Stephen Sondheim’s lyric “we aren’t the Lunts, I’m not Fanny Brice” was about the sum of it. The real Fanny Brice was a comic chanteuse at the Ziegfeld Follies on and off between the 1910s and the 1930s. Later she was to have a huge radio comedy presence until her death in 1951 – but the show doesn’t get that far in her life. It also ignores her first marriage to Frank White and doesn’t reach her third marriage to impresario and lyricist Billy Rose. Instead, it’s all about her breaking into showbiz by impressing Florenz Ziegfeld, and her relationship with husband number 2, Nicky Arnstein – swindler, racketeer, gambler, con artist, and all-round good egg. He lived until 1965 so actually got to see himself immortalised in this show.

Sheridan Smith and the boys of the ensembleThe original production opened on Broadway in March 1964, just a couple of months after the opening of a not dissimilar musical, Hello Dolly. But whereas Dolly scooped ten of the eleven Tony awards for which it was nominated, Funny Girl missed out on all eight of its nominations. Both shows featured a larger than life female lead that dominates the story and gets all the best songs. It was the Swinging Sixties, but both shows give us a huge dollop of nostalgia. Both shows portray people falling in love and the pitfalls associated therewith. They even each have a song about a parade! And of course both are associated with La Streisand (although Miss Carol Channing is the only Dolly for me.) Having seen both shows, I think where Funny Girl falls down is that there isn’t a big attention-seeking show-off number in the second half, which is the moment where Hello Dolly simply excels. Funny Girl’s best songs are all in the first act so you get a sense of imbalance. As in Gypsy, the song before the interval is a moment of pure theatrical defiance which sends you into the interval bristling with excitement and anticipation for the second act. But it’s a peak that the show never quite reaches again. On reflection, I think if I had been in the selection panel for the 1964 Tony Awards, I would have voted for Dolly too.

Girls of the ensembleBut that’s not in any way to criticise this production because it’s every bit as good as you could possibly have hoped it would be. The ever flexible Menier acting space is in standard Proscenium arch mode, but with a front curtain at a diagonal angle criss-crossing the stage rather than straight across the front – and you’ve never seen a curtain whip into position as quickly as it does at the end of the first act – stand in the way and you’d get concussion. Alan Williams’ band is on great form, playing those catchy show tunes with immense gusto. Lynne Page’s choreography neatly allows the large cast to dance together on what is a very shallow stage without bumping in to one another yet still appearing technically intricate. The show also benefits from having a very funny book, revised by Harvey Fierstein, and many of the songs also have wickedly delightful lyrics. If a Girl isn’t Pretty, You are Woman and I am Man, and Sadie Sadie had me laughing all the way through because of their clever turns of phrase (and also delightful performances). I haven’t heard the song Who Taught her Everything she Knows? for decades and had no idea it was from Funny Girl. I last heard it performed by – would you believe – Larry Grayson and Noele Gordon on the stage of the London Palladium in 1974, so it was fascinating to see how it actually fitted in to a real musical (although I also note that it usually appears in the first act – this production delays it till the second). I was also, erroneously, expecting Second Hand Rose to make an appearance, but it isn’t actually from Funny Girl, it was one of the real Fanny Brice’s hits, way back in 1921.

S SmithI have no doubt that the main reason the show sold out so rapidly was the promise of seeing Sheridan Smith as Fanny. Over the past few years she’s built up an enviable reputation of being the kind of actress who can turn her hand to anything. A pocket-sized powerhouse of warmth and charm, with a fantastic singing voice and a comic delivery to match the best in the business, I really couldn’t wait to see her in the role. And she was superb. From the naïve tomboy of her early years, failing (hilariously) to keep apace with the other dancing Ziegfeld girls, through the headstrong abandonment of her career to follow after Arnstein, to the wiser and sadder old trooper of later years, she always captures that spark of positivity that drives the character on. She’s one of those actors you just can’t take your eyes off, even if the others on stage are really good!

Sheridan Smith and Darius CampbellDarius Campbell plays Arnstein, and although he’s now something of an old hand at the theatre game, this is the first time we’ve seen him on stage, although we’re very familiar with (and fond of) his musical oeuvre. How does that singing voice translate to musical theatre? Incredibly well, as it turns out. He cuts the most imposing figure, his height adding to his stage presence, and his voice – would it be a baritone? – just resonates throughout the auditorium. They really use the “little and large” nature of the couple to great effect, including the delightful wedding photograph and her sneaking out from under his gangly limbs when he tries to get a little jiggy with it.

Sheridan Smith and Joel MontagueI really enjoyed Joel Montague as song and dance man Eddie, lamely trying to get Fanny’s romantic attention, when it was clear he was always only going to be Buttons to her Cinderella. I always like it when a relatively big chap carries off some challenging choreography, and Mr Montague is incredibly light on his feet throughout. Bruce Montague (no relation – at least I don’t think so) plays Ziegfeld with dignity and authority but also a mischievous glint in his eye. You might remember Mr Montague (Senior) as Leonard in Butterflies all those years ago, one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s childhood favourites. He’s also one of two cast members who are nearer to their 80th birthdays than their 70th, the other being the excellent Maurice Lane as Mr Keeney, hoofing it with the best of them. Fine examples of how you’re never too old to give a great physical performance.

Funny Girl castThere’s the magnificent triumvirate (if that’s not too male a term – triumfeminate?) of Mrs Strakosh, Mrs Meeker and Mrs Rose Brice, all cunningly playing poker in the corner of the stage, cackling like hens and you wouldn’t trust any one of them an inch. With experienced performers like Gay Soper, Valda Aviks and Marilyn Cutts taking those roles, you know they’re going to give it every inch of oomph it needs, and their performance of If a Girl isn’t Pretty was especially enjoyable. The ensemble of singers and dancers are all first class but I did feel a twinge of sympathy for Matthew Croke and Luke Fetherston having to perform what must be the feyest dancing soldiers routine I’ve seen since the Monty Python Camp Square-Bashing sketch.

Maurice Lane and Darius CampbellIt’s a great show that leaves you with a smile as wide as your arm and makes you want to tap your toes all the way back to London Bridge station. Everyone who booked all those months ago certainly got their reward, and I’d be very surprised if the Savoy transfer doesn’t get extended yet again. And I promise you, you’ll be singing Don’t Rain on my Parade to yourself for days.

Sheridan SP. S. I know the Menier is a charity, but £5 for a programme? That’s a bit toppy isn’t it? Increase the price of the peripherals and you’ll only find people decreasing the size of the voluntary donation when they book in future.

Production photos by Marc Brenner