Broadway Review: FUNNY GIRL (August Wilson Theatre)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on April 30, 2022

in Theater-New York

FUNNY, HOW IT KINDA WORKS

On the Internet exists a theater-centered, YouTube channel called “Staged Right”. And there’s an episode on Staged Right called Fanny & Barbra and the Legacy of Funny Girl. This thirty-minute documentary explores the real Fanny Brice, how the original stage production of Funny Girl came to be and how the show eventually was reworked to better display the tremendous talents of a Miss Barbra Streisand. The musical itself received mixed reviews in its initial 1964 Broadway run. However, audiences and critics agreed that the real, and potentially only, reason to see the show was Miss Streisand’s star-making performance. And her powerhouse characterization was forever imprinted and embellished on the psyche of people who care about such things through the show’s successful film adaptation that won Miss Streisand a Best Actress Oscar in 1969 (a tie with Katharine Hepburn but who’s counting).

Jared Grimes (Eddie Ryan), Beanie Feldstein (Fanny Brice)
Kurt Csolak, Beanie Feldstein (Fanny Brice), Justin Prescott

So to mount a revival of Funny Girl — which is really a show about Fanny Brice as interpreted by Barbra Streisand who was really just playing Barbra Streisand — is quite a daunting prospect. Particularly for the actress charged with playing Fanny Brice in the shade of Ms. Streisand’s very long, very iconic shadow. The good news is the creative and producing teams behind the current Broadway revival of Funny Girl, now running at the August Wilson Theater, have fought through undaunted and delivered a visually striking, often funny, sometimes moving period piece with deeper emotional layers and a few surprises thrown in. And the whole thing rests on the often funny, sometimes moving, though not always solid shoulders of Ms. Beanie Feldstein, the new Brice in town.

Leslie Flesner, Afra Hines, Beanie Feldstein (Fanny Brice), Ramin Karimloo (Nick Arnstein)

When Ms. Feldstein seems confident in her performance, she is thoroughly entertaining. She has a lovely, strong singing voice and the comedic chops to match. Hers is a younger, fairly unpolished Fanny who even at the height of her stardom and sophistication still retains a bit of wide-eyed wonder that her life is actually unfolding this way. In the show’s breakout hit “People”, Ms. Feldstein rendition is not so much an anthem as it is Brice’s personal realization of how lucky she is, with the young Fanny discovering the song’s ideas as she sings. It’s an endearing choice and it works.

Beanie Feldstein (Fanny Brice) and the cast

So it’s rather incongruous that Ms. Feldstein can also seem hesitant in moments, especially when Fanny has to publicly declare her talent or vision — operating only on belief in herself — before gaining validation from those around her. This musical demands Fanny possess that unquestioning self-confidence from the start. For without that quality, she’s just another talented performer waiting for her big break. Yet, at least according to the show, Miss Brice didn’t wait for her big break to happen — she created the conditions and made it to happen. So hopefully Ms. Feldstein will soon create the conditions and have fun playing her Fanny, not just in some places but throughout her performance. Because her Fanny is there, she just has to fully own it. Just like Miss Brice and, certainly, Ms. Streisand. Because, right now, Ms. Feldstein just feels a little out of her depth in this role.

Peter Francis James (Florenz Ziegfeld), Jane Lynch (Mrs. Rosie Brice), Jared Grimes (Eddie Ryan),
Beanie Feldstein (Fanny Brice), Ephie Aardema (Emma), Debra Cardona (Mrs. Meeker),
Martin Moran (Tom Keeney), Toni DiBuono (Mrs. Strakosh) and the cast

The handsome actor Ramin Karimloo is perfectly cast as swindler, Nick Arnstein. Mr. Karimloo is not only an accomplished singer but also a very fine actor who more than justifies his character’s newly expanded development, provided through playwright Harvey Fierstein’s revisions to the show’s original book. Mr. Karimloo’s trajectory from shiny, successful “businessman” to a dulled, recently released, convict is as heartbreaking to witness as it is honestly performed. His rendition of the newly restored song, “Temporary Arrangement”, a solo for Nick cut during the original production’s out-of-town tryouts, is a rousing determination by Arnstein that he’s going to win again and on his own terms. However, Karimloo also allows Nick’s growing self-doubt to peek through during the song, so probably not.

Beanie Feldstein (Fanny Brice), Jared Grimes (Eddie Ryan) and the cast

Jared Grimes is charming and amiable in the role of best friend and confidante Eddie Ryan. His Eddie is good-looking, hard-working and earnest. He and Feldstein believably embody the trust and care that develops between longtime friends and colleagues. Also Mr. Grimes is a phenomenal tap dancer, providing the show with some of its most exciting moments. Peter Francis James is all booming baritone, imposing presence and comical frustration as the unflappable Florenz Ziegfeld. Toni DiBuono is hilarious as Henry Street neighbor Mrs. Strakosh. This bundle of energy and comic timing brightens the proceedings with every appearance she makes. The singing and dancing ensemble performers are wonderful and succeed in all of their assignments. Their recreation of a Ziegfeld Follies number, wearing Susan Hilferty’s beautiful costumes, almost transports one back to the original Ziegfeld Theater. Jane Lynch makes an admirable effort in playing Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Brice. Ms. Lynch is a good actress but her casting does feel a bit like a square peg in a round hole.

Beanie Feldstein (Fanny Brice) and Ramin Karimloo (Nick Arnstein)

Even with Mr. Fierstein’s welcome script revisions, the basic storyline is still the same — unknown yet plucky performer finally gets her Big Break but as she wins professionally, she looses personally. Finally, she rises from the ashes to begin again, ever more determined and optimistic. What is also the same, unfortunately, is the show’s judgment that Fanny is to blame for Nick’s failure in life, with Fanny in wholehearted agreement. This retro attitude that somehow “it’s all the woman’s fault” is much harder to accept in 2022. It also begs the question, why produce a major revival of this fun but not exactly stellar musical comedy confection in the first place?

Debra Cardona (Mrs. Meeker), Toni DiBuono (Mrs. Strakosh),
Jane Lynch (Mrs. Rosie Brice), Jared Grimes (Eddie Ryan)

Perhaps in an attempt to help undercut the musical’s backwards looking ideas, the scenic design by David Zinn firmly situates us in the past before the curtain even rises. By using colorful, two dimensional renderings of a stage curtain and other early twntieth-century theater decorations, Zinn immediately signals that we’ve entered a time machine of sorts. Once the curtain rises, Zinn’s striking, multi-level creation of the dank, backstage area of the New Amsterdam Theater, clearly places the entire show backstage and unfolding in Fanny’s mind. Yet Zinn’s backstage area can also easily represent any location Fanny’s memories may go, including her palatial country estate. Director Michael Mayer keeps everything moving tightly and ideally positioned. Tap choreography by Ayodele Casel and choreography by Ellenore Scott look authentically period though performed with today’s energy and athleticism. Kevin Adams’ versatile lighting keeps everything beautifully illuminated whether in reality or dreamscape. Lastly, the multi-cultural casting by Jim Carnahan, CSA and Jason Thinger works very, very well. From African American actors playing Florenz Ziegfeld and Eddie Ryan to a Nuyorican actress playing Mrs. Meeker to the multi-racial chorus girls and chorus boys to even Jane Lynch, arguably not anyone’s first thought when casting Mrs. Brice, the inclusiveness and creativity put into hiring performers for this production is commendable indeed.

Jared Grimes (Eddie Ryan) and Jane Lynch (Mrs. Rosie Brice)
Ramin Karimloo (Nick Arnstein) and the cast

A bit re-tooled and re-shuffled, Fanny Brice is finally back on Broadway. Some of the problems in telling her story have also returned but so have some of the joys. So rest assured as Miss Brice, Ms. Feldstein and the entire company are making a strong go of it. Because nobody, no, nobody, is gonna rain on their parade.

Beanie Feldstein (Fanny Brice) in Funny Girl.

photos by Matthew Murphy, 2022

Funny Girl
August Wilson Theatre, 245 W 52nd St.
opened April 24, 2022 (reviewed on April 27, 2022 matinee)
for tickets, visit Seat Geek or Funny Girl
for info on lottery tickets, visit Lucky Seat

{ 1 comment }

Greg May 2, 2022 at 10:57 pm

I was lucky enough to catch Funny Girl this past weekend with neither of the two stars. Both Beanie Feldstein (Fanny Brice) and Ramin Karimloo (Nicky Arnstein) were out (Karimloo tested positive for COVID). In their place, enter standbys Julie Benko and Jeremiah James. Like Shirley MacLaine and Sutton Foster who once stepped onstage as understudies and crossed down center to stardom, the same will no doubt be true for these two gifted performers, both of whom deserved the tumultuous curtain call roar from an appreciative crowd. With this casting, “hello gorgeous” doesn’t just apply to Nicky Arnstein but also to Julie Benko: both vocally and physically. She’s also more womanly than awkwardly girlish. When Fanny and Nicky sing, “You are woman, I am man, let’s kiss,” it’s not just one-sided. With Feldstein and Karimloo, it’s a con game; with Benko and James, it’s the real thing.

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