The Paper Mill Playhouse production of “Funny Girl,” the Fanny Brice bio-musical, suggests that the tuner has been too long on the shelf. Playhouse artistic director Robert Johanson has a special affinity for backstage musicals (his 1998 “Follies” was widely acclaimed). While “Funny Girl” is essentially a star vehicle focusing on one central character, Johanson also captures the brassy showbiz ambiance surrounding the star. And he has found an enchanting new talent to fill the role of the title character and the shoes of more than one Broadway legend.
As Brice, Leslie Kritzer triumphs in the daunting task of acting and singing a role so firmly associated with one performer, Barbra Streisand. She is petite and lovely, and succeeds in capturing both the ungainly brashness and unbridled zaniness of the character. Her line delivery is quite good, from salty wisecracks to words of cooing affection and explosive anger. The actress even emulates the awkward Brice pigeon-toed stance and the infectious asides.
The robust and melodic score by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill — which was largely dismissed by the press when the show premiered in 1964 — has endured handsomely. While “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” have become fixed standards in the Streisand songbook, Kritzer manages to bring a fresh, less strident clarity to them. She also delivers “The Music That Makes Me Dance” with torchy grandeur.
Robert Cuccioli, Jersey’s busiest actor, brings persuasive presence to the role of the luckless gambler, Nicky Arnstein. Cuccioli doesn’t get much of chance to sing, but when called upon to do so, he exudes a boldly ardent and ingratiating charm.
As Eddie Ryan, Brice’s childhood friend and later a Ziegfeld dance director, Robert Creighton handles some snappy vaudeville hokum and strutting with an agreeably impish flair. Diane J. Findlay provides a comforting account of Mrs. Brice. Her dry humor and pointed maternal wisdom well defines the typical Broadway stage mom.
Choreographer Michael Lichtefeld has turned the “Henry Street” celebration into a joyous block party and provided an acceptable obligatory chorus line tap routine for “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” (with Kritzer’s Brice as a hapless misfit soldier). Resident designer Michael Anania has pulled out all the stops to recreate the backstage glamour of an era.
Follies posters boasting the names of Eddie Cantor and W.C. Fields bookend the billing of Fanny Brice, and a fluently revolving stage provides peeks into dressing rooms and salons, creating a colorful theatrical ambiance. All is enhanced by Mark Stanley’s pointedly supportive lighting design. Costumer David Murin has framed the leggy allure of gorgeous showgirls with ornate headdresses, feathery plumes and sparkling threads.