Smith is The Greatest Star by Far: an inimitable coming-together of actress, character and comic-timing
Who is the pip with pizzazz? Who is all ginger and jazz? Who is as glamorous as? Sheridan Smith, that’s who. ‘The Greatest Star by Far’, Smith is Funny Girl Fanny Brice: an inimitable coming-together of actress, character and comic-timing in a role that seems as tailor-made for Smith as Brice’s stage costumes.
Based loosely on the on-and-off stage life of actress and comedienne Brice, the musical similarly merges backstage and Broadway with some simple illuminations and inspired staging: a spot clicking to life, a ‘stage door’ sign lighting up, and a backdrop that doubles as both the literal back of the stage and a diegetic auditorium. Illustrative of a life lived on stage, the poignant and powerful finale sees Fanny, ever-professional even in the midst of marital strife, resolve to ‘cry a little later’ – because, ‘well, Brice, that’s life in the the-a-tre’ – in the privacy of her dressing room before throwing off her fur coat to take a triumphant final bow facing… the backdrop. In the golden glow of the spotlight, silhouetted against an empty, gilded auditorium, it’s the essence of tragicomedy: the glory of stardom mixed with the ultimate loneliness of life on stage, and Smith smashes it.
Not only a traditional triple threat – authentic and affecting actress, expressive (and impressive) singer, damn good dancer – Smith is, crucially, a consummate comedienne and the audience’s darling, the latter an unteachable talent she shares with Fanny. Smith’s performance is so natural it’s sometimes impossible to tell actress from character, especially when she’s slapping the asses of the Cornet chaps in their powder-blue suits, and, without missing a beat in the marching taps of Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat, makes a monobrow of an unstuck moustache. Yet, the show nor Smith never make Fanny the butt of the joke: she’s a funny girl but a thoughtful one; a slapstick clown with an irresistable charm.
This may be Fanny’s story, and Smith the stand-out star, but she’s supported by a stellar ensemble. Chris Peluso cuts a fine figure as Fanny’s first ‘ruffle shirt’ – and eventual husband – Nick; charming but crooked, Peluso is suitably suave, silver-tongued, and ever-so-slightly suspicious. Joshua Lay – a truly talented tapper – makes a loveable Eddie, Fanny’s longtime friend, and his delightful duet with Fanny’s mother, a proud and protective Rachel Izen, persuades us that they really did teach Fanny ‘Everything She Knows’. The company perform Lynne Page’s Follies-esque choreography with precision and punch in the in-show performances, and with infectious fun at the after party on ‘Henry Street’.
The stage is a zeitgeist of the Ziegfeld era: glittering lights, chorus girls, gorgeous costumes. As the musical blends Brice’s on-and-off stage life, it also allows the audience to be absorbed into this world too: ‘lights up!’ hollers Fanny, and it’s the house lights that come up; it might be a gimmick, but it’s a great one. Jule Styne’s jazzy score is as bold, jubilant, and brassy as it has always been, and by itself is enough to make us believe we’re on Broadway in the early 1900s.
The show is so full of style and fun, that sometimes the story gets a little lost; the same scene bookends the show and Fanny’s story is told in flashback, but it’s not obvious when we’re back there at the show’s finale that we’ve been there before. Yet, what the show lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in performance and pizzazz – I don’t want to rain on this parade.