“Funny Girl,” a revival of which opened tonight on Broadway, is supposed to be a musical about Fanny Brice, the singing comedienne who was a star of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway for some twenty-five years and then starred in a radio series that she created as the beloved brat Baby Snooks. But let’s face it: “Funny Girl” has always really been about Barbra Streisand.
Streisand originated the part when “Funny Girl” debuted on Broadway in 1964, in her second and final stage role, and made her film debut in the 1968 Hollywood adaptation of it, which turned her into a movie star. “The trouble with ‘Funny Girl’ is almost everything except Barbra Streisand,” movie critic Roger Ebert wrote at the time. “She is magnificent.”
Streisand is much more identified with the musical than Brice, who died in 1951 at the age of 59. The show features none of Brice’s signature songs (My Man, Second Hand Rose etc) but the catchy tunes among the Jule Styne/Bob Merrill score include “People” (“People who need people/are the luckiest people….”), which was Streisand’s first Top 40 hit and became her signature song; her version was eventually inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Is it just a coincidence that the first-ever full revival of “Funny Girl” on Broadway chose to open today, the day that Barbra Streisand turns 80 years old?
All of this prompts some questions: Does Beanie Feldstein, cast in the Streisand role, make us forget Streisand, or at least make the show indelibly her own? Failing that, does the production have enough going for it so that the central performance doesn’t matter as much?
The answer to both questions is, ultimately, no.
Don’t misunderstand: There are solid rewards to be found in this entertainment at the August Wilson Theater.
Feldstein, whose only previous Broadway credit was in the 2017 revival of “Hello, Dolly” as a minor lead, nails three musical numbers in “Funny Girl” – “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” and the finale — that allow us to glimpse the star quality that the production must have been banking on. The three other leads who are listed above the title hold their own: Both Jane Lynch as Fanny’s mother and Ramin Karimloo as Fanny’s dashing but disreputable husband give their usual stellar performances, and Jared Grimes, as Fanny’s friend and advocate Eddie Ryan, is so good, especially in several thrilling tap-dance numbers, that he may be the one cast member who emerges from this production a star. Under the direction of Michael Mayer, with choreography by Ellenore Scott that tries to recreate in several dance numbers the feel of a Ziegfeld Follies extravaganza (albeit on a radically lower budget), and flashy (or at least flashing) design by a team of Tony winning pros, this “Funny Girl” offers some of the conventional pleasures of an old-fashioned Broadway musical.
The charms of this revival, however, are just not rewarding enough to meet the expectations created for the show by Barbra Streisand more than half a century ago.
The problems begin with the book. This story of Fanny’s rise to popularity chooses to focus to an inordinate degree on her relationship with professional gambler Nicky Arnstein. This is rather astonishing, considering that the original producer, Ray Stark, was Fanny Brice’s son-in-law. Everybody loves a good love story, I guess, but this one is not so good. Arnstein, aka Jules Arndtsteyn, Julius Arnold, Nick Arnold, etc. was in reality not just a gambler but a career criminal repeatedly imprisoned, and just one of Brice’s three husbands. (She was one of his two wives plus numerous mistresses.)
He was apparently no Ramin Karimloo in real life — nothing as debonair or attractive as he is depicted — and contrary to the plot, as historian John Kenrick has put it, he “had no qualms about sponging off Fanny.” (It may be more than a desire to boost the box office that explains why the character in the musical was made so much more appealing than the historical figure: Arnstein was still alive when the show was created, and reportedly litigious.)
A musical is not required to be historically accurate. But isn’t there something fatally outdated about shackling the story of an accomplished woman to her relationship with a man? In any case, nothing convinces me to care about that relationship. I didn’t sign up for “Funny Girl and Gamblin’ Man.”
Harvey Fierstein has been hired to revise the book, but there’s just so much he can do, since the best-known and most tuneful songs in the musical – “People,” “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade” — are in one way or another about Nicky and Fanny.
I would have loved more musical numbers like “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” in which Fanny dresses up in a World War I uniform and vigorously tap dances along with (but comically out of sync with) the ensemble, a rare sampling in the show of what Fanny Brice’s comic performances must have been like – of what it was about her, quirks and all, that made her a star.
I was hoping that Beanie Feldstein could pull off a Streisand and make the flaws of the show irrelevant through the force of her personality and her talents – just as the force of Fanny Brice’s personality and talents made her looks irrelevant, according to the clear theme of the musical. Much is made in the musical of how Brice was not pretty — there are two separate musical numbers based entirely on that premise — but the claim is baffling when you look at photographs of her in her Ziegfeld Follies days (the ones where she’s not making funny faces.) Perhaps the show’s take on her looks reflects the particular standards of beauty of the era (and its misogyny and antisemitism?) In our era, stars like Lizzo are confronting the continuing prejudice against women with full-bodied figures.
Seen in this light, the casting of Feldstein feels groundbreaking. It’s not the first time for director Michael Mayer; he also helmed “Head Over Heels,” which stands out for having cast Peppermint and Bonnie Milligan as leads.
Yet Feldstein’s performance is only occasionally compelling. For all the lovely tone to her voice (within a certain range), there is little distinctive about her song delivery, especially in the ballads. And while she’s a game actress, there was nothing about her timing or physical clowning that shouted out: Comic genius. There are only so many geniuses in the world, and Feldstein may have the opportunity during this open run to improve. This doesn’t mean attaining perfection. What we can hope for is something imperfect, but singular, the earmark of some of our most beloved stars.
August Wilson Theater
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes, including one intermission
Ticket prices: $69-$269
Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill
Original book by Isobel Lennart, from her original story, revised by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Michael Mayer
Choreography by Ellenore Scott, tap choreography by Ayodele Casel, scenic design by David Zinn, costume design by Susan Hilferty, lighting design by Kevin Adams, sound design by Brian Ronan, hair & wig design by Campbell Young Associates, music direction and supervision by Michael Rafter, orchestrations by Chris Walker, dance, vocal and incidental music arrangements by Alan Williams, and additional arrangements by David Dabbon and Carmel Dean.
Cast: 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.