Not just funny girls: Ashleigh Harvey is supported by a super talented all-South African cast

If you don’t believe me when I say the Fugard Theatre’s production of Funny Girl, the musical, is better than the movie, you’ll shout ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’ when you hear me say Ashleigh Harvey as Fanny Brice is even more Barbra than Streisand.

What can I say … the bitter-sweet musical drama based loosely on the life of Broadway star, film actress and comedienne Fanny Brice, which had its official opening at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town on Wednesday, exceeded expectations … even for this dyed-in-the-wool Streisand fan.

Standing on the original Funny Girl’s shoulders is one thing; filling her shoes entirely another. Try to look past the mind bending, body twisting imagery of filling someone’s shoes while standing on their shoulders and believe me when I say that Naledi nominee Harvey manages to do all of this as Fanny Brice.

Even so, for many of us, this story will forever belong to the original Funny Girl, who starred in the Broadway show that opened in March 1964 at the Winter Garden Theatre.

‘Queen Barbra’ went on to win an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in the 1968 film version. Who knows how much like the real Fanny Brice Harvey’s performance was, she was absolutely marvellous doing Barbra as Fanny.

The showgirl and the gambler: Ashleigh Harvey as Fanny Brice and Clyde Berning as Nick Arnstein

But this is not just a story about the awkwardly gorgeous Fanny’s rise from Brooklyn music hall singer to Broadway star, or even Barbra’s embedding herself in musical history and our hearts performing iconic songs such as “People” and “Don’t Rain On My Parade”.

The real drama is delivered thanks to Fanny’s tempestuous relationship with the handsomest of gamblers, Nick Arnstein, played here by Clyde Berning. He gives a more layered and passionate portrayal of the character that Omar Sharif burnt into the minds of many so effortlessly thanks to his smouldering sexiness.

Fanny and Nick are more than ably supported by an all-South African cast playing the lovable and larger-than-life characters all in rather excellent New York accents.

Just as I pondered if being so damn good at singing and dancing might be the musical equivalent of having looks and brains the six “chorus girls” came on en pointe and performed a flawless mini-ballet.

Fanny’s poker-playing, wise-cracking mother (Kate Normington, front) and her friends provide most of the gags

Fanny’s Mum and her chums seem to fill a bigger space in the stage production than in the movie, providing a large proportions of the laughs.

Kate Normington gives a standout performance as Mrs Brice. Particularly good sound and timing allows the audience to hear every word, meaning that hardly a gag is lost.

Other aspects of the production were super slick, too, with the smoothest switching between scenes and settings. This show makes nonsense of the idea that performing in real life and real time is too limited by the realities of reality.

No surprises that this production reunites the creative team behind the Fugard Theatre’s other hits The Rocky Horror Show, Cabaret and West Side Story: director Matthew Wild, musical director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and choreographer Louisa Talbot.

Slick service at the Fugard bar

Evenings at the Fugard are ever-more slick, from warm greetings at the door by gentlemen in top hat and tails to the most friendly and efficient bar service in town before and after the show.

Funny Girl – The Musical is based on the book by Isobel Lennart, with music composed by Jule Styne and lyrics written by Bob Merrill. The new production is presented by Eric Abraham and the Fugard Theatre. It runs until June 11.

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