NEW YORK—“People don’t change,” one character notes in the closing minutes of the first-ever Broadway revival of the 1964 musical “Funny Girl.” These words are a constant reality in this very charming and often bittersweet production.
Beginning and ending in 1924, with the bulk of the show taking place sometime earlier, “Funny Girl” is based on incidents from the life of musical comedy star Fanny Brice (Beanie Feldstein). Despite possessing immense talent, Fanny finds herself initially stymied on the New York stage as she does not fit the stereotypical image of a “beautiful girl.”
However, thanks to the help of a young tap dancer named Eddie Ryan (Jared Grimes), Fanny lands a job in a musical revue and, soon after, attracts the attention of famed impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (Peter Francis James).
Firmly aware of what type of material works best for her, Fanny goes against Ziegfeld’s specific instructions and reworks her part in one of his musical numbers.
The audience’s enthusiastic response places her firmly on the road to stardom.
Fanny and a Rake
Fanny also credits her success to a chance encounter with professional gambler Nick Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo), who happened to be at the theater one night looking for talent he could recommend to his contacts in the industry.
Fanny is immediately smitten by this handsome rake of a man, whose fortunes turn on a deal of the cards or the latest horse race result. The two get a chance to bond when she takes him to meet her mother (Jane Lynch) and several of her mom’s cronies.
Almost from the start Nick is wary of the attraction he and Fanny have for each other, and the commitment and responsibility such a relationship requires. Yet despite the fact that Fanny “scares the hell out of me,” as he puts it, Nick soon realizes she is the person he is meant to be with. Fanny eases a loneliness in Nick he never knew he had.
As Fanny and Nick adjust to married life, bumps in the road appear when he tries to leave the high life and settle down. His various business efforts continually fall apart. Fanny’s attempts to prop him up financially, sometimes without his knowledge, only serve to increase Nick’s feeling of being smothered by the woman he loves.
In today’s era of complex musicals, “Funny Girl” recalls an earlier time. Some of corny jokes and numbers are lovely to look at but don’t always advance the plot. At the same time, the show comes across as a delightful bit of fresh air. This is thanks in no small part to the book by Isobel Lennart, revised for this production by Harvey Fierstein, and the wonderful score by Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics).
Musical highlights include “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” a comedic seduction where the strong-willed Fanny and the debonair Nick finally admit their feelings for one another (and features some hilarious acrobatic efforts); the rousing “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” where Fanny announces she’s going to follow her dreams, regardless of what others may think; and the touching “People,” in which Nick and Fanny realize that, despite their very different backgrounds, they are actually kindred spirits.
Lead Falls Short
The one major issue with the show, other than it being hard to hear the lyrics at different points, is with Feldstein’s performance. While the actress handles her comedic and dramatic requirements with ease, and clearly embodies Fanny’s “take no prisoners” drive throughout, she lacks a certain stage presence.
Whether by herself, with her with co-stars, or on stage with a group of chorus girls, she never owns the scene, which is a shame because, in all other ways, she is perfect for the part. Whether this fault is entirely Feldstein’s, director Michael Mayer’s, or a combination of both is open to question.
Karimloo makes an excellent Nick, as he calls to mind a young Kevin Kline with his devil-may-care attitude and efforts at physical comedy. At the same time, he’s also able to convey the pathos beneath the surface of his character. Grimes makes a fine Eddie, who carries an unrequited love for Fanny and gets to shine in several solo performances that literally stop the show.
Lynch is perfect as Mrs. Brice, dispensing advice on life and relationships as seen through the prism of her own marriage, while never wanting less than the best for her daughter. Toni DiBuono and Debra Cardona are fun as Mrs. Brice’s friends with a penchant for gossip and cards. James is nicely bombastic as Ziegfeld.
Costumes by Susan Hilferty are excellent, ranging from the outfits of the various Ziegfeld chorus girls, to Nick’s impeccable suits, and the often opulent garments Fanny wears. Ellenore Scott’s choreography is both intricate and enjoyable, while Mayer’s direction, for the most part, works well.
Both touching and breezy, there is a lot of first-class fun to be had at “Funny Girl,” and one could do far worse for a summertime outing at the theater.
August Wilson Theatre
245 W. 52nd St.
Running Time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (one intermission)