Sunday, April 24, 2022

Broadway Review: "Funny Girl" Was Never a Great Musical, but With the Exceptional Beanie Feldstein as Fanny Brice, Who Cares?

Funny Girl (c) Matthew Murphy

Broadway Review: Funny Girl 
On Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre 

Premise: For a show as famous as “Funny Girl,” most people have never seen the actual stage show that made Barbra Streisand a star. The problem is that expectations are insanely high for whoever takes on the title role of Fanny Brice, the real-life, early 20th-century Broadway and vaudeville performer. There have been many smaller productions around the country over the years, and names like Lea Michelle, Debbie Gibson, Lauren Ambrose and Jesse Mueller have been dropped as possible Broadway Fannys. The actress to head the first major revival was British actress Sheridan Smith in the West End in 2016, directed by Michael Mayer with a revised book by Harvey Fierstein from Isobel Lennart’s original, which I was fortunate to see. After many delays and a pandemic, Mayer’s slightly tweaked “Funny Girl” is finally on Broadway where she belongs, almost six decades since the musical first premiered. Fanny, now in the hands of Beanie Feldstein, is a dreamer living in Brooklyn with her mother (Jane Lynch) when her stage career takes off with the help of her friend Eddie (Jared Grimes). At the Ziegfeld Follies, she meets Nick Arnstein (Ramin Karmloo), a handsome but chronic gambler, and after many stops-and-starts, they fall in love and marry. While Fanny’s career flourishes, Nick’s luck runs out, including plans to open a casino in Florida and other schemes that get him in trouble with the law. But will Fanny, whose motto is to not to let anything “rain on her parade,” be able to survive Hurricane Nicky? 

My Take: When I saw Mayer’s production in London, I was glad to finally see the show, which unfortunately felt rather lacking in plot besides the over-reliance on the clichéd showbiz biography tropes. Of course, the hit, crowd-pleasing songs by Jules Styne and Bob Merrill like “People” and “I’m the Greatest Star” were intact, but so were throwaway songs, like “You Are Woman, I Am Man” and “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat.” The musical runs out of gas halfway through the second act and the love story sort of just peters out when it should feel tragic. It’s no wonder the production is so dependent on an exceptional actress playing Fanny. Sheridan Smith, who is well known and beloved by West End audiences, was fine in the role, although she overplayed the Brooklyn accent to the point of distraction. Beanie Feldstein, on the other hand, is a relative stage neophyte, who made her splashy, Broadway debut in Bette Midler’s “Hello, Dolly” in 2017 and has a few indie movies under her belt, like “Book Smart” and “Lady Bird.” The verdict? Feldstein is sensational as Fanny. We knew she could sing from “Hello, Dolly,” but who knew she could “SING!” like that. Feldstein’s acting is not subtle and may not have the “six expressions more than all those Barrymores put together,” but she is a dynamo of energy, comedic timing and occasionally a vulnerability that is hard to fake. She is also backed by a crackerjack ensemble and a supporting cast that one wishes had more to do than to just support. 

Funny Girl (c) Matthew Murphy

Jane Lynch is sympathetic as Fanny’s mother, who gets all the good Fierstein jokes, but she and her fellow Brooklyn mothers seem to always be whisked on stage as filler during big costume and set changes. Jared Grimes is a phenom tap dancer and a likable presence, but his Eddie sort of fades away as the show goes along, except to state the obvious about Fanny’s marriage to Nick. Oh, about that Nick, well, Fanny’s lyric that “the groom is prettier than the bride” will never be truer than with Ramin Karmloo in the role. He has put his sexy stamp on stodgy roles like Jean Vajean in “Les Miserable” and the lead of “The Phantom of the Opera,” so to give him so little to do but stand there and be smoldering (which he does so admirably) seems like a waste, especially since his big song, the added “Temporary Arrangement,” is so forgettable. Even with all this talent on stage (I didn’t even mention Peter Francis James as a commanding Florenz Ziegfeld), the show lives and dies on the strength of its Fanny. And thankfully, this production lives gloriously. 

VIP: Beanie Feldstein. Of course. Draped in Susan Hilferty’s wonderful costumes, Feldstein is never not in command. She may not seem at ease in the character as Streisand does in the film, but who ever could? Her singing is quite impressive, although Mayer undercuts her solos by flashing the lights around the stage as if to signal to the audience that it’s almost time to applaud. Seriously, we don’t need the prompt. I don’t know how many Red Bulls she needs to give her the wings to deliver “Don’t Rain on My Parade” after over an hour of stage time, but keep the supply coming. Her otherwise heartfelt “People” is a little odd as she’s singing to Nick, but is staged as a monologue song. But then again, why deprive the audience of having Feldstein standing center stage, singing to them? Honestly, I was a little worried when Feldstein was announced as the new Fanny. Can she handle the pressure and the sheer enormity of the role in her first leading performance on any stage, let alone Broadway? Yes, she can. Mazel Tov, Ms. Feldstein.

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