‘Funny Girl’ the Broadway Revival Starring Beanie Feldstein, Ramin Karimloo, Jane Lynch, Jared Grimes
Funny Girl has been successfully presented in the UK’s West End in revival (2016, book by Harvey Fierstein), in Paris, and in regional theater. However, producers have been loathe to consider a full-on Broadway revival until now. This is so for numerous reasons, not the least of which Barbra Streisand, who originated the role as a relatively unknown 21-year-old in 1964, inevitably draws acute comparison with anyone daring to try the part on for size.
Streisand was Fanny Brice in a confluence of personality, genius talent, comedic flair and pure drive. Though she didn’t win the Tony for Best Lead Actress in a Musical (1964 when Funny Girl opened), she won the best actress Oscar for the 1968 film adaptation. It was a satisfying recognition after her tremendous work in making Fanny Brice and Funny Girl legendary. Her connections to the role, and association with the show’s signature songs became inviolate. So it is a good thing that Funny Girl is in play in this revival; perhaps more revivals will come in the near future.
That said it takes a courageous sensibility to attempt to transmogrify the role of the Fanny Brice Ziegfield Follies star away from Streisand’s iconic work, in this first Broadway revival. Kudos go to Beanie Feldstein who stars with Ramin Karimloo, Jared Grimes and Jane Lynch in the Jule Styne (music), Bob Merrill (lyrics), Isobel Lennart (book), Harvey Fierstein (revised book), Funny Girl revival directed by Michael Mayer. Currently, the production runs at the August Wilson Theatre.
Beanie Feldstein has the appropriate determination to portray “the greatest star.” Nevertheless, during specific moments, she appears to be overwhelmed by the complex and profounder transitions the role requires as Fierstein’s book travels in flashback from the opening scene where Fanny gets ready to go onstage. The flashback of her memories follow how she moved from childhood to teen rising star to successful Follies celebrity who becomes an icon in her time. Uncloaked is her first anointing from gambler Nick Arnstein who compliments her on her talent. And as her star rises she becomes worthy of their budding relationship and blossoms, as his star dims and his wealth diminishes. By that time they’ve married.
Feldstein is not new to challenges. She debuted on Broadway as Minnie Fay in Hello Dolly (2017). And she has been appreciated and noted for the humorous Booksmart and Lady Bird, and in her role as Monica Lewinsky in Impeachment: American Crime Story.
In the role of Fanny Brice she is uneven at best, at worst out of her kin, vocal acumen, acting talent, comfort/confidence zone. When she teams up with others (“I’m the Greatest Star” (“Reprise), “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” “Sadie, Sadie,” “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”), she shines with capability and confidence. When she carries the song on her own (“Who Are You Now?” “I’m the Greatest Star,” “People,” “The Music That Makes Me Dance”), she skates on thin ice.
Not fervent with authenticity and the intensity that the role requires with songs like “People” which Fanny sings to convince herself to let go and love Nick Arnstein, who her mother has suggested is a criminal, she isn’t quite believable. However, with the ensemble, Jared Grimes’ wonderful Eddie Ryan and Ramin Karimloo’s suave, alluring Nick Arnstein, Feldstein relaxes and has more fun. Also, with the exuberant Jane Lynch (not necessarily believable as a pushy, Jewish mother), she overcomes herself and more comfortably inhabits the role.
Sometimes Feldstein’s sweet singing went a tad flat momentarily in the first act and became a distraction to the events undergirded in the song. In her attempt to make Fanny Brice her own, certain schtick works if it glimmers, strikes, then vanishes. When it becomes repetitive, the humor loses its “funny.” As such, the youthful Fanny, the bumbling Fanny and the fake pregnant Fanny are clever. She is appropriately, broadly a ham (“His Love Makes Me Beautiful”). As Feldstein takes off on the visual, risque joke, the audience adores it and their adoration sets Fanny off into Fanny Brice stardom, all Beanie believable.
The flashback of the cute, adorable, wide-eyed innocent Fanny, the gutsy star-driven dreamer with heart (“I’m The Greatest Star”), works for a season. When she meets Nick and is with him for a while,, she doesn’t quite transition to charming, sensual, intriguing funny, the lure which entices Nick. Thus, their relationship never moves beyond the girlish Fanny who transforms into the Fanny who is a star that is beyond Nick in success, talent and charm. At some point the “Star is Born” meme should come alive when she exceeds Nick in grace and beauty as a Follies “Great.” Feldstein never quite pulls that off. Nor does she manifest the pain Fanny experiences when Ramin’s Nick and she part ways which leads into the overcomer Fanny who transcends, heartbroken but triumphant.
Karimloo’s Nick is gorgeous, fit, debonair and experienced. This superficial ethos lures Fanny like bread does to fresh water fish. In their scenes and songs (“I Want To Be Seen With You,” “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” “Who Are You Now,” and You’re a Funny Girl” that Nick sings alone), both actor’s make sense of these scenes because Karimloo plays the seducer, the lover, the partner who acts upon her as the receiver. Feldstein doesn’t have to do much but “fall” into his arms and be under his spell. And that is easy to do. The women in the audience are standing in her shoes enamored of Karimloo’s aura and sterling voice.
However, the complications of their marriage, seem static and should be predictable but are not emotional as Feldstein’s Fanny doesn’t register that her relationship is dissipating with Nick after she becomes a “Sadie.” Despite all the lovely set appointments by David Zinn’s scenic design for their Long Island home, the irony is manifest. It is not a home because it lacks warmth as Nick’s concern about money takes over.
Eventually, even Karimloo (who beautifully sings throughout and does a bang-up job in “Temporary Arrangement”), when Nick sings about his going off by himself to make money…has difficulty with latter scenes between himself and Feldstein. When Feldstein’s Fanny attempts to save their marriage by outtricking a trickster, his response to Fanny’s gambit is interesting, if not lackluster. Nick’s reckless gambling has placed him out of Fanny’s status and wealth. Feeling emasculated when his project goes bankrupt, he is driven back to his criminal ways to recoup, which he never can because he lands himself in jail. The urgency between them in the parting scenes right before his prison sentence and after fall flat. We don’t care all that much about her heartbreak because Feldstein’s Fanny doesn’t seem to either by the “Finale.”
The book has been revised by Harvey Fierstein to streamline Act II which is a fine change-up. Fierstein transfers “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?” sung by Mrs. Brice (Jayne Lynch) and Eddie Ryan (Jared Grimes) to the second act. Both are super conveyors of good will and have a blast together during the number. Indeed, Lynch’s and Grimes’ numbers are noteworthy as they possess the stage with grace, aplomb and enjoyment that the audience appreciates.
Jared Grimes’ tap is non pareil and brings down the house. Grimes is helped by tap choreographer, Ayodele Casel, who also succeeds in creating a number in which Feldstein shines with the ensemble (“Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”). Overall the choreography by Ellenore Scott is strongest and most fun in the Ziegfeld numbers supported by the extraordinary costumes by Susan Hilferty with her expansively winged butterflies, shimmering chorus (“Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”), bridal outfit in “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” and in Fanny Brice’s outfits nearing the end of the production, reflecting the progressing years after the flashback ends. All are enhanced by the lighting design by Kevin Adams and Brian Ronan’s sound design.
If you have not seen the West End revival of Funny Girl in the UK or at a regional theater, this production bears seeing for a number of reasons. Fierstein’s revised book is excellent and gives a lot of play to the characterization of Nick Arnstein. The entire company and the leads’ team work shines. The music is wonderful and the historic figure of Fanny Brice, a woman who made her career at a time when women had power in theater is something to be reminded of. Brice went on to more success in the entertainment industry in later years. Her life is one to remember.
Final mention must be made about the superb musical team. They include Michael Rafter’s music supervision and direction, Chris Walker’s orchestrations, Alan Williams’ dance, vocal and incidental music arrangements, Carmel Dean’s and David Dabbon’s additional arrangements, and Seymour Red Press’s and Kimberlee Wertz’s music coordination.
The show runs with one intermission. For tickets and times go to their website: https://funnygirlonbroadway.com/