Theatregoers seeking thrills at the revival of Funny Girl aren’t kept waiting. The musical about the real-life comedian Fanny Brice, back on Broadway for the first time since its 1964 premiere, instantly delivers delights in its exhilarating overture. Melodies glide from one instrumental earworm to the next: the rousing “I’m the Greatest Star” to the tender “People” to the defiantly upbeat “Don’t Rain On My Parade.”
Whistle-wetters don’t come much better. And when all is said and sung, it’s as good as it gets in this less-than-persuasive production directed by Michael Mayer, whose credits include the hit Spring Awakening and the short-lived On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
Inspired by Brice’s life and times, the plot captures onstage highs and offstage lows for some yin-yang conflict. It’s also an ugly duckling-style story of how Brice’s singular comedic talents bested her unconventional looks — the song “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” speaks plainly to that — and let her rise through burlesque ranks to be a wisecracking wonder woman in the Ziegfeld Follies in the 1920s. Yes, that happened.
It’s a star part that’s as juicy as it is challenging. Beanie Feldstein, who made her Broadway debut as Minnie Fay in 2017 in Hello, Dolly!, takes the quantum leap into the role that puts her front and center for most of the show. It’s the one that made Barbra Streisand a household name and voice — and won her an Oscar in the film version.
The story, written by Isobel Lennart and revised here by Harvey Fierstein, begins in the late 1920s and unfolds as a memory. Fanny, who’s in a new show, awaits her huckster husband, Nick Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo), who’s just out of prison. “Who Are You Now?” she muses in one of the meditative mood-setters in the luscious score by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill. The real question: Can, and should, this marriage be saved?
The action flashes back to a stage-struck adolescent Fanny and her tough but supportive saloon-keeper single mother (a dry and wry Jane Lynch), who knows her daughter faces steep odds in showbiz. Fanny’s connection to performer Eddie Ryan (Jared Grimes, affable and twinkle-toed) sets her on the track to stardom. The express train to success gets rerouted thanks to romance with Arnstein. Can a woman have it all? Decades later, the question remains.
The bittersweet answer eventually emerges as the action moves through time and from one place to another. David Zinn’s soaring cylindrical scenic pieces open and close to reveal various locales. Susan Hilferty’s floral headdresses lend whimsy to showgirl getups, while Kevin Adams’s lighting provides glow and shadow on cue. Ellenore Scott’s choreography for production numbers delivers jolts of energy, while Ayodele Casel’s tap choreography gives Grimes a showcase that feels right for Brice’s benefactor.
As the no-good Nick, Karimloo cuts a dashing figure. Aside from some odd, occasionally halting phrasing, he makes the most of his duets with Fanny including “I Want To Be Seen With You” and “You Are Woman, I Am Man.” “Temporary Arrangement,” added to beef up the role, emits a sort of man-on-the-lam vibe and feels slightly out of place.
This show rises or falls on its Fanny. Feldstein is game and likable but monochromatic in her acting and singing. Consequently, her star turn never quite lifts off the stage. Between the performance and the presentation, even “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” a cheeky Follies number in which Fanny pulls a fast one while playing a bride, leaves you jilted.
In the end, Broadway’s new Funny Girl feels like a musical comedy promise left unfulfilled. We’re told more than once that Fanny is hilarious and one-of-a-kind, but proof of that side-splitting singularity doesn’t materialize. So you long for something quirkier, zanier, more out-there and surprising. In short: Girl, show me the funny.
Photo credit: Leslie Flesner, Afra Hines, Beanie Feldstein, and Ramin Karimloo in Funny Girl. (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy)