“You ever feel like there’s someone watching from the shadows?” asks Beanie Feldstein’s Fanny Brice, as haunting apparitions from the Ziegfeld star’s past waft in and out in a kind of “Fanny’s ‘Follies’.”
The problem with this uninspired revival of “Funny Girl” — which opened at the August Wilson Theatre on Sunday, marking the show’s Broadway return after nearly 60 years — is not simply the singular ghost of she who shall not be named. (Alright: It’s Barbra Streisand.) Rather, the issue here is the production’s inability to live up to its star-making potential that would have made us once again forgive the simplistic, sentimental and sanitized original book credited to Isobel Lennart.
The script, revised by Harvey Fierstein for this production, still fails to come to terms to any great degree with the disconnect in the relationship of Fanny and gambler husband Nicky Arnstein, effortlessly played and stunningly sung by Ramin Karimloo. What a 2022 audience may find exasperating is the unresolved dichotomy of its leading character. Fanny is clearly no push-over, one who is so confident and determined that — hell, she starts out by singing “I’m the Greatest Star,” so clearly self-esteem is not in doubt.
Yet Fanny is also a fool for love, or at least an unexplored, unjustified and unbelievable fool. Yes, she is insecure about her looks and class but she’s also a person of power and she doesn’t hesitate to use it, even on the intimidating theatrical impresario Florenz Ziegfeld.
But her character — and Feldstein’s performance — never goes far beyond the sentimental, tiresome and not-exactly-of-the-moment cliche of the woman who can’t stop loving her man, even after nearly every character on stage (not to mention the audience) knows it’s doomed. An end-of-show empowerment reprise of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is too little, too late.
To make some kind of emotional sense of Fanny’s character calls for an actress of extraordinary charm, maturity and finesse, one who is able to show motivational shadings beyond the limits of the script. Oh, and sing the hell out of the score.
Feldstein’s Fanny is a wide-eyed woman-child, at turns stubborn, awkward and silly. Knowingly precocious, Feldstein relies on broad face-making rather than a more nuanced comic skillset. Yes, though Brice herself could be soulful in song, she was not the subtlest performer either — one of Fanny’s trademark comic characters, after all, was Baby Snooks. But that doesn’t mean this bio-show has to reflect a child’s version of adulthood.
But ah, that tuneful Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score — not to mention the iconic overture, which still gives chills even if there aren’t dozens of musicians in the pit. While the ballads “People” and “The Music That Makes Me Dance” are underwhelming here, Feldstein’s big-note numbers land well, especially “I’m the Greatest Star” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
Fierstein’s revision is more of a retouching, just as he did when the show was first successfully revived by the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2015, before it transferred to the West End a year later.
A few songs have been smartly repositioned, one dropped, and the title song from the movie has been inserted (a lesser Styne-Merrill effort and yet one that’s sung twice). The best musical change was making the ballad “Who Are You Now” a poignant duet between Fanny and Nick, giving both some much-needed depth of character and nicely performed here by Feldstein and Karimloo. But a running gag about Nick’s ruffled shirt goes into ad nauseam territory, and adding more Yiddish expressions does not more comedy make.
The rest of the cast lend fine support. Jane Lynch as Franny’s loving, wry mother is splendid and lands every laugh with the greatest of ease. If the part of Fanny’s faithful pal Eddie is sorely underwritten, Jared Grimes at least has a terrific showcase tap number, choreographed by Ayodele Casel.
Martin Moran and Peter Francis James give old-pro performances as theater owner Tom Keeney and Ziegfeld. Toni diBuono and Debra Cardona as Mrs. Brice’s poker buddies are a hoot. And Daniel Beeman is a solid ten of a tenor in the Ziegfeld number “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.”
The production, under Michael Mayer’s direction, gets little help from David Zinn’s unattractive set, dominated by what looks like a giant brick silo; Susan Hilferty’s sometimes garish and unflattering costumes does the leading lady no favors; nor does Ellenore Scott ever elevate the show’s choreography above standard fare.
Still, there’s great affection for the show, mostly due to the recordings and the 1968 hit film, and the production could get an extended life on the road with the right casting. After all, even after that first famous ghost left the original production, the musical still managed to tally a total of 1,348 performances.