The In-Person Broadway Review: Broadway’s Funny Girl
Funny. So, even though I try hard not to read any reviews of a show before I see it or write about it, I couldn’t help but notice that Beanie has not been receiving the kindest words about her performance in the first revival of the legendary Funny Girl musical. It’s been, what, like 60 years since the original Broadway production opened on March 26, 1964, at the Winter Garden Theatre (and subsequently transferred to the Majestic Theatre and The Broadway Theatre, where it closed on July 1, 1967, to complete a total run of 1,348 astounding performances). So in the theatre world, it really is time for a revival. Even if the show itself is not as good as the film that followed.
The fascinating thing about the whole adventure is looking back and reading the lead-up to the original 1964 Broadway production. It’s astounding just how many women were associated with the part before it even started out of town previews back in the day. What happened all around the planned Broadway revivals almost mimicked the journey the original musical took. First, it was going to star Mary Martin (Sondheim who at one point was enlisted to write the score with Jule Styne stated, “I don’t want to do the life of Fanny Brice with Mary Martin. She’s not Jewish.”, then Ann Bancroft (She listened to the score, then stated, “I want no part of this. It’s not for me.” – thankfully, I might add), Eydie Gormé (she demanded her husband, Steven Lawrence, play the Nick role. No dice, she was told. Once again, thankfully.), Carol Burnett (“I’d love to do it but what you need is a Jewish girl.”), until they finally landed on the somewhat newcomer, Barbra Streisand (I Can Get It for You Wholesale), with Bob Fosse at one point connected to the stage musical as director. Just imagine. I can’t.
So it seems that getting Funny Girl back on Broadway had to go through the same rigamarole. Numerous starts and stops, with many a surprising cast announcements made but none of them ever seemed to fully get off the ground. So when Beanie Feldstein was presented to the world as the first Fanny Brice on Broadway since Barbra, I sorta smiled, shrugged, and said, “ok. Great. We shall see“.
It’s a hard, almost impossible act to follow, mainly because of that Barbara woman. And I pity the poor fool that takes that on, and for a critic, it is an equally difficult task of separating and not comparing Beanie to that other leading lady, the one who originated the role so many years ago to great acclaim (to say the least). I mean, Streisand’s performance in that stage show basically made her a star, followed by that movie version, which subsequently elevated her even further, and sent it and her to iconic Oscar-winning levels. Impossible. But the show should be attempted. And revived, regardless. Just like they did, pretty successfully I might add, in London’s West End a few years back. (Read my two reviews here, and here). I only wish I had as many kind words to say about this revival as I did back when I saw it in 2016.
So, I’m going to cut to the chase and say, that even though I tried with all my might to put aside comparisons, Beanie Feldstein (Broadway’s Hello, Dolly!; FX’s “Impeachment“) just doesn’t have the vocal chops to pull this show off. She’s cute, and works really really hard to be an irresistible funny girl on the August Wilson Theatre‘s stage, but when the songs come up, they sorta just fall far short of what they need to be vocally to lift this show up to the heavens. I mean, she’s fine, but Funny Girl the stage musical needs more than just fine. One of the problems is that the stage show is just not that great of a musical to begin with. Yes, the movie was utterly magnificent. One of my favorites but in its transfer to the silver screen, the show was hugely reformulated into a pretty fantastic vehicle for Streisand. A lot of work was done into that restructuring, finding many much better numbers for Streisand to sing as Fanny Brice on stage, as well as expanding the visual to fill that big movie screen with gorgeousness. The stage show musical itself is not the film, and it needs, almost desperately, a powerhouse voice to hoist it up high. And Feldstein just doesn’t have what it takes. I’m sorry to say.
Another difficult part is that her voice is not the best voice on that Broadway stage. As it really does need to be to make this show work its magic on us. That gold vocal medal goes to the phenomenal (and deliciously chiseled) Ramin Karimloo (Broadway’s Les Misérables, West End’s Phantom of the Opera, KC’s Chess) who blows away the part as the most handsome and sexiest Nicky Arnstein that one could ever wish for. His voice soars magnificently, far above the rest, leaving Feldstein and the somewhat cute Jane Lynch’s Mrs. Brice wondering what just happened to their own spotlight charm.
The other problem of the show is that the star-making turn once again is not Feldstein. It is Jared Grimes (Broadway’s After Midnight on Broadway) who just blows it all up with his astounding tap-dancing turn as sidekick Eddie Ryan, Fanny’s friend and supportive follower. His skill with those tap shoes, with help from tap choreographer Ayodele Casel, really does set the stage on fire in a way that almost no other moment does, and although that routine is fantastic for the audience, just like Karimloo’s voice, they are not so great for the focus of the show. Together, these imbalances, wildly embraced by the audience, really leave this show struggling to right itself, regardless of how hard director Michael Mayer (West End’s revival of Funny Girl; Broadway’s Burn This) attempts to keep things ticking along at a good solid pace.
Designed pretty beautifully by David Zinn (Broadway’s Boys in the Band), with sharp lighting by Kevin Adams (Broadway’s Cher Show), lovely costuming by Susan Hilferty (Broadway’s Present Laughter), and solid sound by Brian Ronan (Broadway’s Mean Girls), the show struts and mugs its way along like a well oiled mediocre vaudeville show. Never losing our interest but not wowing us in the way we went in hoping it would.
“That’s where I live, on stage,” Fanny says, and we wish we registered that at least for a moment or two. In many ways, this production of Funny Girl, with original music by Jule Styne (Bells Are Ringing), special material by Margaret Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill (New Girl in Town), a book by Isobel Lennart (“Love Me or Leave Me“), and a helpful revised book by Harvey Fierstein (2ST/Broadway’s Torch Song), is fairly well constructed yet sadly traditional. It wisely gives some good numbers to more characters and situations then the Streisand/Brice focused film. The staged numbers that Feldstein performs as Fanny never really rise up to the same levels as the movie counterparts both vocally or comically. And that is not a comparison to Streisand, but more about the somewhat lame writing of the staged numbers that Brice is supposed to be wowing us with. I ached for the simple “I’d Rather Be Blue Over You (Than Happy With Somebody Else)”, “Second Hand Rose” or the wickedly funny “Swan Lake” parody, but nothing in the stage version, particularly the mediocre “Cornet Man” and “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat“, come remotely close. They are not as funny, nor as beautiful realized. So in a way, they sadly suit this revival more than we would have liked.
Mayer’s production keeps up the hard-working pace throughout regardless of the weight it is dragging within, moving the story forward with skill and never really taking the tale too dramatically serious. He has Feldstein consistently mugging for laughs in almost a too conscious manner as if her life depended on it, physically looking for the joke in every tailored moment, even when a more subtle one might do the trick. This is not all Feldstein’s fault. She should share the wide-eyed grin with Ellenore Scott’s (Off-Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors) elbow nudging, gut-poking choreography. It’s all big and obvious, to the extreme.
Several of the characters and situations are luckily gifted with more to play with than the Fanny-focused Streisand film. Mother Brice, overplayed by Jane Lynch (Broadway’s Annie), and the two lovely poker-playing ladies; Debra Cardona (Off-Broadway’s Morning’s at Seven) as Mrs. Meeker and Toni Dibuono (Broadway’s Wonderful Town) as Mrs. Strakosh, find flavor and fun in their side-act moments. But they do tend to feel like time fillers rather than anything relevant, which is honestly what most of their schtick is all about. While the more complex character, Eddie Ryan gets a second strong moment to shine in the cute and vaudevillian mother/Eddie duet, “Who Taught Her Everything?” Lynch just hangs on to his coattails hoping some of that shine falls on her.
The whole thing is a bit of a disappointment, to be honest. And the most troubling part is that it just needed someone else in the lead, and if that person had the vocal chops and the comic confidence, like the UK’s Sheridan Smith or her backup, Natasha J Barnes – who were not perfect, but infinitely better than Feldstein – to make it their own, then we would have had a Funny Girl to reckon with. My companion, who had never seen the film before (gasp!), enjoyed it much more than I did, but he also noted the problems, without prompting. I’m just holding my breath and wondering who will be the replacement, as the word on the street is that Feldstein’s understudy is pretty darn good at holding this piece together, as it should be. And that wish, to see an understudy, sorta says it all.
Ross, thanks for this amazingly detailed write up. I’ve been trying to avoid other commentary, waiting for your opinion. Great review. Balancing the film against this current production. Much appreciated.
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