The Broadway Theatre Review: Funny Girl starring Lea Michele
Funny. When I saw this show back in May of 2022, I didn’t have the kindest of words to say about the production. I wasn’t cruel, by any means (I hope I’m never that), but it did feel off-balanced and in trouble. Without the core vocal strength at the center of Funny Girl, all the flaws of the uneven show were ever so obvious, present, and hard to ignore. It truly does need that killer voice holding it all together, and without that blast of high vocal energy, Funny Girl just isn’t that fun. But all that has changed. Most magnificently. With Lea Michele and that supreme voice of hers at the center steering this ship forward, this revival finally makes sense. It still has some intrinsic flaws, but now, in this rejuvenated production, the show spins and swirls with so much more assurance, saving it from the stormy waters that were crashing up against its sides before the recasting. The musical easily pulls in the already excited audience, with Lea elevating the production into the enthusiastic fine space it belongs. Finally, the ship has been saved from going under. Thank goodness.
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, completing a total run of 1,348 astounding performances). So when this show returned earlier this year, it really was time for a revival. One of the fascinating things about this whole two-part 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 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 seemed that getting Funny Girl back on Broadway had to go through a similar 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.“ And the rest of that is literally Broadway history. Critics were not kind to Beanie, and similar in thought to my own was that her voice just wasn’t up to the requirements of the part. And for this show, that’s not a good thing.
Then came the drama around her replacement announcement, and then her early departure, alongside the praise for Beanie’s understudy, Julie Benko, who took over when Beanie stepped away (but who is now the alternate a number of times a week). It was a mess, or so it seemed, but with Lea Michele (Broadway’s Spring Awakening) finally named as her replacement, returning her to Broadway after all the controversy swirling around her behavior on the set of “Glee” – a show she basically used as an audition for this exact part, ticket sales went through the roof, basically, saving the show from disintegrating before our very eyes. Beanie wasn’t the Funny Girl we wanted. It seems it was Lea all this time, regardless of all that was attached to her. It’s a complication, for sure, but it’s also the perfect redemption story, and even if you don’t think Lea deserves it, or is entitled to it, the audience response was enthusiastic, without question.
I have always stated that I pitied the poor fool that takes that on this part, and for a critic, it is an equally difficult task of separating and not comparing whoever is playing that part 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 the 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 review here). The production had its own fair share of drama, with that production’s Fanny Brice, Sheridan Smith, who was labeled as “indisposed” for weeks on end (some might say it was a power play, but who knows). But when the understudy started getting good press, maybe even better press, Smith returned. Funny.
Here, on Broadway this summer, it was a slightly different story. Not to look too much backward here, but Beanie Feldstein (Broadway’s Hello, Dolly!; FX’s “Impeachment“), I’m sorry to say, just didn’t have the vocal chops to pull this show off. She’s cute, and she worked really really hard to be an irresistible funny girl on the August Wilson Theatre‘s stage, but when the songs came up, she fell far short of what was needed vocally to lift this show up to the heavens and have it make sense. I mean, she was fine, but Funny Girl the stage musical needed something far more than just fine. One of the main problems is that the stage show is just not that great to begin with. Yes, the movie is 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. I mean, that “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” stage number in the second act is about as dull as can be and should have been axed decades ago. Why it’s still there, I’ll never know, but the stage show musical is not the film, unfortunately, and never will be (unless they incorporate some of those better songs (particularly the final number) into the stage version. Yet what remains true, is that the show needs, almost desperately, in the center spotlight, is a powerhouse voice to hoist it up high. Feldstein didn’t have what it takes. But Lea Michele does. Most definitely. And with her at the center of that swirl, as directed by Michael Mayer (West End’s revival of Funny Girl; Broadway’s Burn This), the show finally makes sense.
Designed a bit clumsily by David Zinn (Broadway’s Boys in the Band), with sharp and detailed lighting by Kevin Adams (Broadway’s Cher Show), overly fussy and loud costuming by Susan Hilferty (Broadway’s Present Laughter), and a solid sound design by Brian Ronan (Broadway’s Mean Girls), the show struts and mugs its way along like a well-oiled vaudeville show. It feels a bit crowded and oppressive with those two big curved walls rotating in and out cutting us off and never allowing the stage to feel the large grandness of the Ziegfield Follies. It never loses our interest but in terms of design, it never really impacts us in the way we want it to.
Yet, Michele storms the stage almost from the moment she opens her mouth and turns on that sound. The audience screams with delight from the first note of each of the iconic songs, like “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade“. Her voice soars and elevates, matching Streisand’s without mimicry. It’s quite an accomplishment; giving us what we want while making it her own. Sometimes it does feel forced, but is there any way around the constant internal comparisons? I don’t think so.
The other thing that really makes this revival spin much stronger, is that she matches, in more ways than one, with that phenomenal talented (and deliciously chiseled) Ramin Karimloo (Broadway’s Les Misérables, West End’s Phantom of the Opera, KC’s Chess) who finds union in Michele’s Fanny. As gorgeous as he is, he finally finds himself not leading the ship through stormy waters, but assisting at the helm of an already solid voyage. He delivers at every turn, even the silliest of songs, blowing us all away as the most handsome and sexiest Nicky Arnstein that one could ever wish for. His voice literally soars, but instead of leaving Feldstein and her costar at the time, the somewhat cute Jane Lynch’s Mrs. Brice (who also left the show in September) wondering what just happened to their own spotlight charm, the pairing of Karimloo with Lea balances the show out and keeps that revolve from tipping over and drowning all that stand near.
The other old problem solved almost instantly is with the star-making turn of the impossibly talented Jared Grimes (Broadway’s After Midnight on Broadway). He too just amazes 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, sets the stage on fire more than just once, yet this time around, the balance of the show remains steadfast and true
“That’s where I live, on stage,” Fanny says, and 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“) with a helpful revised book by Harvey Fierstein (2ST/Broadway’s Torch Song), does its job. It is fairly well constructed yet sadly traditional. It wisely gives some good fun numbers to more characters and situations than the Streisand-focused film. The staged numbers with Fanny don’t ever really rise up to the same levels as the movie counterparts, but this time around it’s not because of the vocals or the comic chops of its star. But because they aren’t as compellingly constructed as they are in the film.
This is 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)” (even though they slipped it in a bit this time around – or was it always there and I failed to notice? I’m not sure), as well as the charming “Second Hand Rose” or the wickedly funny “Swan Lake” parody. Nothing in the stage version, particularly the mediocre “Cornet Man” and the uncomfortably unfunny “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat“, comes remotely close. They are just not as funny, nor as beautiful realized. And in some way, we wanted to see Lea Michele have a good crack at them, as we can only imagine her divine delivery. Her “Sadie, Sadie” did sparkle with joy, as did her “I’m the Greatest Star“, but it is in the lesser-known (to us film buffs) “The Music That Makes Me Dance” number, sung from an oddly out-of-place circle, that surprises. I didn’t even remember it from Beanie’s performance. But this time, it was memorable. And utterly gorgeous.
Mayer’s production continues to keep up the hard-working pace throughout, moving the story forward with somewhat of a hyper-edged quality. He never really takes the tale too dramatically seriously, sharing a wide-eyed grin with Ellenore Scott’s (Off-Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors) elbow-nudging, gut-poking choreography. He certainly keeps it running fast and funny. But it also has heart and soul. Something that was missing a few months ago. It’s all big and maybe a bit too obvious, but it works its magic like it never seemed to do well before. And for that I am grateful.
Several of the characters and situations are gifted with more to play with than that Fanny-focused Streisand film. Mother Brice, now beautifully portrayed by the amazingly engaging Tovah Feldshuh (Broadway’s Cyrano), finds connection in every gesture and embrace. There, seated wisely on each side of her, are the two lovely poker-playing ladies who always seem to have something to say; Debra Cardona (Off-Broadway’s Morning’s at Seven) as Mrs. Meeker and Toni Dibuono (Broadway’s Wonderful Town) as Mrs. Strakosh. They, like almost all the other characters, 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, Grimes’ Eddie, with Feldshuh’s Mrs. Brice gamely at his side, gets a second strong moment to shine in the cute mother/Eddie duet, “Who Taught Her Everything?” It’s a pure vaudevillian pleasure, if there ever was one, almost as much fun as Karimloo and Michele’s delightfully funny “You Are Woman, I Am Man“. Let’s kiss to that one.
All I can say is “what a relief“. Broadway has finally secured its Fanny, and all of us fans, of both the film and of Barbra, can breathe a huge sigh of relief. When I saw it the first time around, I noted that I was “just holding my breath and wondering who would be the replacement.” We don’t have to do that anymore. The problem has been fixed, and we can all exhale. This reformatting has saved Funny Girl, and for that, we can all be truly thankful. Mazel Tov Lea. Now, the question is, not so much, does she deserve this, but how will she be awarded?