It has 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 magnifcently portrayed the show’s central character, comedian Fanny Brice (both on stage and then in the highly regarded 1968 film version.) And now that Michael Mayer’s periodically entertaining revival is finally here, at Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre, we discover there’s actually two good reasons this show might have been better off staying away forever.
First, if you have any memory of Streisand, her vocal stylings and line readings remain so indelible there is nothing anyone, including the hard-working and extremely talented Beanie Feldstein, can do to erase them. This appealing young actress succeeds at conveying the show’s physical and verbal comedy (though she mugs a bit too much) as well as its dramatic moments. More importantly, she handles most of the demands of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s rangy score with aplomb, shining brightest on the show’s beltier numbers (like “Don’t Rain on My Parade), while sounding less assured on the show’s popular ballads. (Her version of the classic “People,” is honestly a bit shaky.)
But the truth is both Feldstein and Streisand’s ghost are not this production’s biggest problems. Even with some tinkering from the great Harvey Fierstein, Isobel Lennart’s book is an overlong, episodic mess, somewhat 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.
Moreover, despite the very considerable talents of the suave Ramin Karimloo as Brice’s eventual husband, gambler Nicky Arnstein, the delightful Jane Lynch as Fanny’s supportive if practical mother Rosie, and especially tap-dancing dynamo Jared Grimes as best pal and teacher Eddie Ryan, every single character besides Fanny feels completely one-dimensional.
Additionally, Karimloo’s casting, while perfect, also proves to be a blessing and a curse. As he is a magnificent singer, the production has added two more solos and part of a duet to justify his presence – an idea that might have been fine if some of the show’s other numbers were cut to create a better sense of balance. Instead, the show runs just a few minutes shy of three hours, and to be fair, “Funny Girl” isn’t exactly “Les Miserables.”
Finally, Mayer’s production (which originated several years ago at London’s petite Menier Chocolate Factory) is 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. Finally, Ayodele Casel’s tap choreography (primarily for Grimes) is suitably exciting, but Ellenore Scott’s choreography for most of the show is shockingly mundane.
The overall result of everything on stage is that the show often feels like a bus-and-truck tour that has stopped temporarily in New York City, and not the triumphant revival people have been hoping for. Funny how life works.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Beanie Feldstein, Ramin Karimloo, Jared Grimes, Jane Lynch, 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
August Wilson Theatre
245 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019