Funny Girl review: Barbra Streisand's shoes are too big for Beanie Feldstein to fill
Who is the pip with pizazz? Who is all ginger and jazz? For the vast majority of people (who love people) there will only ever be one true Funny Girl on stage and screen, and her name is Streisand. That towering vibrato is the hill Beanie Feldstein has to climb in the revival currently mounted at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway, and the pizazz, accordingly, flies fast and loose. Her Fanny Brice lands at a lower altitude, though: both funny and girlish but never really big.
"Sit back, relax, and let us take you to musical-comedy heaven," Harvey Fierstein commands via loudspeaker at the outset, his signature sandpaper rasp the disembodied voice of Broadway. (He also wrote the revised book.) An extended orchestral medley trills a promise of what's to come, dancing over the notes of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill's iconic score until the curtain finally rises on Feldstein uttering the line that launched a thousand matinees: "Hello, Gorgeous."
She's looking in an imaginary mirror, but she could be speaking to scenic designer David Zinn's elaborately integrated sets, the rotating lazy-Susan circle on stage dominated by a sort of split monolith that slides open or recedes to reveal a Lower East Side tenement, a Long Island mansion, more than one train depot, and a full host of Follies. It's that brick-walled tenement where Feldstein's Fanny begins, after a brief flash-forward, as the pantalooned teen still dreaming of chorus-girl glamour — an awkward duckling whose swan potential her mother (a brash, vigorous Jane Lynch) heartily defends against the scoffing ladies (Debra Cardona, Toni DiBuono) of the neighborhood.
Fanny may not have a pageant face or a dancer's grace, but pure chutzpah propels her almost immediately into the sights of real-life theater impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (Peter Francis James), and straight to the pinnacle of turn-of-the-20th-century show business. Even Fanny is flummoxed by her immediate rise ("Where's the suffering? Where's the hard knocks, the setbacks to learn from?") and the play suffers for it too; a star is born with an "Oy vey" and a kick-ball-change before she's even showed what she can do beyond a little soft shoe.
Which is not to say the role is short on showpieces; it's made of them, from the skyscraping swoon and swell of "People" to the clear-skies apogee "Don't Rain on My Parade." And romance rushes in in the form of Ramin Karimloo's Nick Arnstein, the dashing playboy who has Fanny at hello. He's a tuxedoed dreamboat with dimples and a butter-melting baritone, which helps to mitigate the fact that he keeps disappearing off to London or Monte Carlo — and that his money seems to keep sliding away too, mostly on cards and horses.
Broadway and West End veteran Karimloo (Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera) is a gracious, almost liquid performer, his elusive Nick equal parts charm and melancholy. He gazes at Feldstein's Fanny with real affection, but the legendary chemistry that led to Streisand and Omar Sharif falling in love both on and off screen in the smash 1968 movie adaptation registers here as the warm flicker of friendship, not the fireworks of sex.
Fierstein reportedly trimmed some 40 pages from Isobel Lennart's original script, adding two songs and cutting two, and Feldstein — an ingratiating actress on film (Booksmart) and TV (American Crime Story) — does her valiant best to channel Fanny's incandescent, unsinkable flair. Her singing voice is much reedier and less distinctive than Streisand's though, and the sweet, scattered daffiness of her comic persona feels too modestly scaled for the powerhouse presence Funny Girl demands.
Instead, Tony-winning director Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening, American Idiot) fills the stage with choreographed sizzle and pomp, a swirl of talented supporting players singing and stomping their way through various Ziegfeld extravaganzas and group musical numbers. As Fanny's right-hand man Eddie Ryan, Jared Grimes (A Soldier's Play) makes staccato magic with his tap shoes, and only a deadened soul could stay entirely cold when the jazz hands and rhinestones start flying. (Susan Hilferty did the sumptuous costumes, including one boogie-woogie set piece that finds the chorus in sensational full-body silver, like disco Tin Men).
The bone-deep familiarity of the songs and busy, high-stepping tenacity of the cast provide more than enough candy to keep the show aloft for more than two and a half hours. But Fierstein's version of the story spends so little time building dramatic tension in its central relationship, or on the stakes of Fanny's brash feints and mistakes, that it often feels like a friction-free CliffNotes of the original; all the razzle-dazzle, none of the pesky realities. More than that, it's hard to escape the feeling that Feldstein, for all her fourth-wall winks and bright enthusiasm, is fundamentally miscast. This Girl needs a force majeure, not a light breeze, to make it sing. Grade: B–
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