Funny Girl

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Photo: Matthew Murphy Review
It was long been speculated that the reason no Broadway producer has revived the legendary musical “Funny Girl” since 1964 is that no woman could erase the memory of Barbra Streisand, who magnificently portrayed the show’s central character, comedian Fanny Brice (both on stage and then in the highly regarded 1968 film version.) And when Michael Mayer’s revival opened last April at the August Wilson Theatre, with a miscast Beanie Feldstein as Fanny, it seemed the naysayers were right.

Think again. Lea Michele stepped into the star part in September and, having finally seen her in the role, I can gleefully report that you may leave the theater saying “Barbra who?” She isn’t eligible for a competitive Tony Award this year, but a special accolade should be created for her (and not just because she basically saved the show from a premature closing!)

While Michele seemed to do little but imitate Streisand during her years-long stint on the TV series “Glee” – especially during the season-long arc when her character, Rachel Berry, auditioned for (and won the part of) Fanny in a Broadway revival -- the now 36-year-old performer is giving a performance that is wholly organic and undeniably thrilling.

Her Fanny is the ultimate believer in herself: She can become a star despite not being a classic beauty; she can defy the great Florenz Ziegfeld (an excellent Peter Francis James) because she knows how the audience will react to her; and, most of all, she believes – albeit wrongly – that she can change the basic nature of her husband, the strong-willed gambler Nicky Arnstein (the suave Ramin Karimloo). Michele shows us the striver and the survivor in equal measure, and it’s enormously touching.

She also, somewhat surprisingly, succeeds at conveying the show’s physical and verbal comedy, most notably in “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” and “Sadie, Sadie.” If she can’t salvage “Cornet Man” or “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” well, I think they’re bad songs that should have been replaced.

More importantly, she handles most of the demands of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s rangy score with unbelievable aplomb, using her extraordinary vocal control on the show’s beltier numbers -- “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “The Music That Makes Me Dance” -- as well as the show’s popular ballad, “People.”

But the truth is Streisand’s ghost was never this production’s biggest problem. Even with some tinkering from the great Harvey Fierstein, Isobel Lennart’s book is an overlong, episodic mess tediously re-telling Fanny’s rise from neighborhood nobody to a worldwide superstar, courtesy of the Ziegfeld Follies, with a less-than-happy home life.

The production is also remarkably cheap looking by Broadway standards. Two staircases (reminiscent of “Follies”) take up way too much space on David Zinn’s uninspired set, forcing all the action to take place center-stage, while Susan Hilferty’s costumes aren’t quite as lavish as one might have hoped.

Still, in addition to Michele, there is talent to spare on that stage! While adding two more solos and part of a duet for Karimloo allows us to relish his magnificent voice, it’s also an idea that might have worked better if some of the show’s other numbers were cut to create a better sense of balance. Meanwhile, every time the tap-dancing dynamo Jared Grimes, as Fanny’s best pal and teacher Eddie Ryan gets a chance to strut his stuff, the theater practically explodes.

Lastly, there’s the show’s other recent addition, Tovah Feldshuh, as Fanny’s supportive if practical mother Rosie. As might be expected, Feldshuh offers a master class in musical theater, getting all the laughs and the pathos, and adding brio to her few musical numbers (most notably her duet with Grimes, “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?”) She also exhibits superb chemistry with Michele.

Is Lea Michele the world’s greatest star? No. But she proves to be the great, shining star this “Funny Girl” needed. Go see her!
By Brian Scott Lipton

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Lea Michele, Tovah Feldshuh, Ramin Karimloo, Jared Grimes, Peter Francis James, Ephie Aardema, Debra Cardona, Toni DiBuono, Martin Moran, and includes Amber Ardolino, Daniel Beeman, Colin Bradbury, Kurt Thomas Csolak, John Michael Fiumara, Leslie Donna Flesner, Afra Hines, Masumi Iwai, Aliah James, Jeremiah James, Danielle Kelsey, Stephen Mark Lukas, Alicia Hadiya Lundgren, John Thomas Manzari, Liz McCartney, Katie Mitchell, Justin Prescott, Mariah Reives, Leslie Blake Walker, and Julie Benko

Open/Close Dates
Opening 4/24/2022
Closing Open-ended

Theatre Info
August Wilson Theatre
245 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019