Stepping into Streisand’s shoes

LONDON — Who’s “the greatest star”? Maria Friedman may well be if plans pan out for London’s first major revival of “Funny Girl” in more than 30 years.

Negotiations are well along for two-time Olivier Award winner Friedman to play Fanny Brice in a revival, aimed for early 2002, currently being packaged by her sister, Sonia, a producer for Britain’s Ambassador Theater Group. (ATG owns nine West End playhouses.)

That would mean Friedman will be belting out such standards as “People,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “I’m the Greatest Star,” previously sung by a certain “girl” called Streisand.

The sisters Friedman have worked together before: Sonia produced the first show for which Maria won an Olivier, “Maria Friedman by Special Arrangement” at the Donmar Warehouse. Sonia was administrating London’s Out of Joint touring troupe when Maria appeared for that company in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “The Break of Day.”

This latest “Funny Girl” is eyeing an August workshop with a view toward an eventual chamber production of the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill original. A director is expected to be firmed up shortly, alongside someone to tweak Merrill’s book. (Both creators’ widows are said to be supportive of the project.)

“This has got to be small, and it has got to be a proper story,” says Maria, 41, from her dressing room at the “The Witches of Eastwick,” “since nobody knows who Fanny Brice is anymore.”

But they do know Barbra Streisand, who opened the show on Broadway in 1964, later repeating her perf in London and onscreen. “It does come with the whole Streisand stigma attached,” acknowledges Sonia, 36, aware that “Maria has no physical resemblances to Streisand at all.”

“It’s a part for an older woman, actually,” Maria says. “Fanny Brice starts off as somebody my age.”

“Maria’s got a ski-jump nose and Streisand doesn’t,” says Sonia, “and yet (my sister) is still a funny girl.” That, in the end, is surely what counts.

Branagh readies ‘Richard’

Kenneth Branagh is returning to the Bard in his (that’s to say Shakespeare’s) original setting — namely, the stage.

The actor, who made his professional debut in the Bard in 1984 while only 23 playing the title role in “Henry V,” has signed to play Richard III next spring, running March 13-April 6 at the Crucible Theater in the Yorkshire city of Sheffield. (Opening night is March 19.) More frequently of late, the actor-director has had his Bardic sights on the bigscreen.

The limited stand reps Branagh’s first stage appearance in nearly a decade, since he played Hamlet for the Royal Shakespeare Co. in 1992. The director will be Crucible a.d. Michael Grandage, who won the London Critics’ Circle award for best director earlier this year for “As You Like It,” “Passion Play” and “Merrily We Roll Along.”

R&H fans brave riots

As proof that the Brits love their classic musicals, one need look no further than the May 1 perf of “The King and I.” Minutes away from the Palladium Theater, the Oxford Circus area of London was closed to passers-by and poised for trouble, with riot police facing off (and even outnumbering) several thousand May Day protesters.

Inside the Palladium, however, 800 people had gathered to watch the production’s new Anna, Josie Lawrence, “whistle a happy tune” opposite a new King of Siam in Keo Woolford. Anarchy be damned, apparently, when there’s a show to be performed.

“From all accounts, it was the most wonderful show they gave,” says Laurence Miller, the show’s general manager, who was in the Scottish city of Edinburgh on that particular day tending to a “West Side Story” tour.

Extra police were standing by, not to mention security provided by Really Useful Theaters, the Palladium’s owners, lest the disturbances spread down Argyll Street, a pedestrian thoroughfare dominated by the cavernous playhouse.

Instead, an understandably nervous cast found scant cause for alarm. (“The King and I” company boasts 37 adults and 13 children, representing 11 countries among them.) And the British public — even in a house only a third full — rose, as they do, to the challenge of getting to the theater.

“A bit of a Blitz spirit came out in people,” Miller reports. Now let’s see how the critics respond when they re-review the production May 9.

Ramblin’ man

Tony nominators didn’t smile on Joe Mantello’s Roundabout Theater revival of “Design for Living,” but several producers in Britain, a country far more comfortable with such an uncompromising directorial take, have expressed interest. (If anything, Sean Mathias’ Donmar Warehouse approach to Noel Coward’s play several seasons back was even more revisionist — if considerably less resonant.)

The result has been two offers to transfer the Mantello production to London, especially since a mooted staging of the same play a season or two ago from Peter Hall never materialized. (At the time, Hall claimed he couldn’t cast it satisfactorily.)

The problem, apparently, is keeping Mantello’s cluster of leads intact, especially since co-star Alan Cumming is departing New York the minute the limited engagement ends May 13 to do promotional chores in Cannes on his and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s much-awaited co-venture, “The Anniversary Party.”

“Alan’s a rambling man,” says Roundabout a.d. Todd Haimes. But it looks unlikely — at least for the moment — that he, Jennifer Ehle and Dominic West will be rambling a trois to the West End.