No one could accuse Beanie Feldstein of playing it safe.
Starring in the first Broadway revival of ‘Funny Girl,’ in the role that catapulted Barbra Streisand into the stratosphere, the captivating ‘Booksmart’ star didn’t let fear of being compared to her idol get in the way of her dreams theatrical.
Feldstein recently played Monica Lewinsky in the FX series “Impeachment: American Crime Story.” This role certainly has its share of baggage, but attacking Fanny Brice threatens to be accused of sacrilege.
For Broadway theatergoers of a certain vintage, “Funny Girl” was the gateway drug that led to a musical comedy habit. Memories of the original 1964 Broadway production have faded, but the cast albums live on forever, and VHS recordings of William Wyler’s 1968 film made it possible to view Streisand’s Oscar-winning performance on several occasions in the era. pre-digital.
Finding a Fanny after Streisand wasn’t the only thing that held a Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” back. The show, which has a wonderful score on and off from composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill, is a level below “Gypsy” (for which Styne also wrote the music) and “Kiss Me, Kate” (another musical behind the scenes with more bite).
At its best, “Funny Girl” distills the sound of Broadway’s late heyday. Two hits from the series, “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade”, have a permanent place in the American songbook. But the song and the story are not perfectly synchronized.
Despite all the ups and downs of this musical saga about the life of legendary Jewish vaudeville star Fanny Brice, “Funny Girl” often leaves the impression of marking time. Isobel Lennart’s trailblazing book falls into many showbiz biography cliches. Imagine “Gypsy” crossed with “A Star Is Born”, but with a slower pace and sentimentality.
This new Broadway production of “Funny Girl,” directed by Michael Mayer at the August Wilson Theater, features a revamped book by Harvey Fierstein. Mayer and Fierstein teamed up for the London production of “Funny Girl,” which starred Sheridan Smith in a revival that started at the Menier Chocolate Factory before moving to the West End.
There’s not much rebuilding that can happen with a show built around such a well-known score. Fierstein’s most significant intervention involves altering the marital balance of power between Fanny and her dashing, debauched gambler husband, Nick Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo).
When the pair first meet, Nick is a sophisticated man of the world, and Fanny scrambles to get her foot in the door of showbiz. But once Fanny’s career takes off, she begins to act like a boss, not just at the Ziegfeld Follies, where she’s now headlining, but at home, where she controls the purse strings.
Nick is starting to feel emasculated, which should come as no surprise to a guy who prefaces his seduction of Fanny with the “You Are Woman, I Am Man” number. Fierstein imports nothing that isn’t in the original material, but his review clarifies Fanny’s role in the collapse of his marriage.
Feldstein’s Fanny is most compelling as the Long Island matriarch who wants everything to go according to her plan. As a wife, she is as domineering as she is insecure, lovingly generous but with the understanding that the responsibility ends with her.
The gain in prosaic realism comes at the expense of the magic of fairy tales. The character’s glare is reduced. Even Fanny’s bravery can look professional.
I fell in love with Beanie Feldstein in the 2017 Broadway revival of “Hello, Dolly!” with Betty Midler. That same year, the Harvard-Westlake grad stole scenes and hearts in “Lady Bird.” After being blown away by his comedic spunk in “Booksmart,” I tweeted that I wanted to be the leader of Beanie Feldstein’s fan club.
All this to say that I appreciate Feldstein’s unique self and have no desire to hold her against Streisand’s impossible standard. But “Funny Girl” is gigantic booty, and though she performs bravely, she never makes the role her own.
Fanny Brice was a genius physical actress. She could also sing, not like Streisand, but in a style that made the songs as engaging as the shtick.
Feldstein has a moving face and a gift for stunts, but she’s not yet a master clown. And her singing is a mixed blessing. She can belt out “Don’t Rain on My Parade” with enough power to have the audience on their feet in ecstasy at the end of the first act, but her beltless voice rarely gains traction.
When Karimloo offers a brief cover of “People” in the second act, the rich resonance of his singing reveals what we were missing. Omar Sharif, who starred alongside Streisand in the film, lacked the Broadway tips that Karimloo has. He may not even have had the perfectly sculpted abs that Karimloo exhibits in a shirtless scene in which he wears nothing but pajama bottoms.
Karimloo doesn’t try to match Sharif’s elegant mystique, but the gratuitous display of his masculine beauty only serves to sharpen the contrast to Feldstein’s zaftig Fanny. Why couldn’t Nick have been redesigned with a bit more realism too?
Many stories are made about the fact that Fanny is not conventionally beautiful. Nobody needs to remind that “bagel on a plate full of onion buns,” as she puts it, that she’s not the Follies showgirl.
When Florenz Ziegfeld (Peter Francis James) casts her on his show, she turns the finale into a visual gag by singing “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” with a pillow under her wedding dress to make it look like she’s pregnant. If the audience is going to laugh, she wants to be the one telling the joke.
Feldstein’s Fanny is generally good for a laugh, but more in the vein of a funny sidekick. The talent behind the character’s meteoric rise is something we need to consider. Admittedly, the humor of Fanny Brice’s act can be lost over time. But Feldstein doesn’t quite have the theatrical confidence to convince us that this old music hall thing really could kill.
Mayer’s production is most lively in those moments when Broadway virtuosity shines through in the supporting cast. Tap dancing by Jared Grimes, who plays Eddie Ryan, the dance coach who elevates Fanny’s game, infuses the revival with a resurrecting dose of theatrical joy.
As Fanny’s saloon-owning mother, Jane Lynch doesn’t always seem to belong to this New York Jewish background, but she showcases female solidarity with Fanny, one strong and independent woman to the other. Toni DiBuono as Mrs. Strakosh and Debra Cardona as Mrs. Meeker help bring the Henry Street neighborhood to life with their chatty interest in every turn of Fanny’s fortunes. In his portrayal of Florenz Ziegfeld, the impresario who quickly recognizes the goldmine he has in Fanny, James exudes an elegant authority.
David Zinn’s scenic design transitions with rapid efficiency from urban apartment block to suburban mansion, with colorful road stops along the way. Susan Hilferty’s costumes go to the extreme of glamor and bagel-adorned madness, so it’s almost a relief when Fanny is given something flatteringly simple to wear.
Fanny de Feldstein is at her best when she herself is most vulnerable. “Do you think beautiful girls are going to stay fashionable forever?” she said to one of her first opponents. “I should say no! Any minute now, they’ll be out! Completed! And then it will be my turn!
His prediction turns out to be correct in his case, but Feldstein deserves a big Broadway break better suited to his gifts. What she deserves is a brand new musical that will do for her what “Funny Girl” did for Streisand.