One would think it would be axiomatic: a star vehicle demands a star. In the case of reviving “Funny Girl,” which propelled Barbra Streisand into global superstardom with her portrayal of legendary Ziegfeld comic Fanny Brice, the producers needed to find someone with an inherent star quality who could light up the stage and make the role her own. Instead, they got Beanie Feldstein.
Like Streisand, Feldstein had demonstrated her comic chops in supporting movie roles and in the recent revival of “Hello, Dolly!” before stepping to the center of the stage. Unlike Streisand, however, Feldstein is conventional in everything — particularly her singing. Yes, she can belt as needed, and her songs — notably “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” — have become standards. However, Feldstein’s voice isn’t unique like Amber Gray, Ethel Merman, or Kristin Chenoweth, nor does she have the comic chops of Laura Benanti. To make Fanny Brice, and this revival, work, Feldstein would have to have put her own stamp on the role. If she cannot wipe out the memory of Streisand — an impossible task — at least she could give us something new. To be fair, Feldstein is a talented performer, and one is left with the feeling that the producers did her no favors casting her in this role.
“Funny Girl” is a show that’s more famous than it is well-known, and its weakness has always been the book. Isobel Lennart’s original ignored Brice’s true history to make a familiar showbiz, obscurity-to-stardom tale. In revising it, Harvey Fierstein hasn’t done much. Instead, he’s turned it into “A Star is Born,” where a woman’s success is emasculating to the man she loves. It’s tired, particularly when such shows as “Tina” approach the darker elements of the real story.
In interviews, Fierstein has implied that he was limited in what the estates of the original creatives would let him do, but in changing the second act to focus on Fanny’s gambling, husband Nick Arnstein, the tonal shift is jarring as the story retells tales we’ve heard hundreds of times before. The attempt to give Arnstein some complexity comes in reviving a song, “Temporary Arrangement,” where he asserts he can reclaim his suavity and success. It’s a terrible song.
Ramin Karimloo as Nick Arnstein is about as good as it gets. He’s got matinee idol looks, a great voice, and a confident stage presence that often, unfortunately, overshadows Feldstein. Karimloo was the sexiest Jean Valjean ever in the recent revival of “Les Misérables,” but there, as here, he worked alone. That’s how Valjean is written, but here Arnstein needs to connect with Fanny. There is simply no chemistry between Karimloo and Feldstein, so Arnstein sometimes seems more like Fanny’s uncle than her husband, which makes Fanny seem desperate.
In supporting roles, Jane Lynch is funny as Fanny’s mother. Toni Di Buono is adorably quirky as Mrs. Strakosh, one of the kibitzers from Fanny’s Henry Street neighborhood, and Jared Grimes has moments of pure electricity as Eddie Ryan, Fanny’s long-time friend and supporter. Whenever Grims is on stage, things perk up. The ensemble is terrific, too.
Michael Mayer’s direction is both manic and confusing. We often don’t know where to look. There are ghosts of Ziegfeld girls looming around the opening, purloined from Sondheim’s “Follies.” Yes, the whole show is cast as a memory as Fanny sits in her dressing room awaiting Nick to be released from prison, but what memories do these ghosts represent? Ayodele Casel’s tap choreography is one of the highlights, while Ellenore Scott’s other choreography is nothing new. Susan Hilferty’s costumes are stunning, while David Zinn’s sets feel cheap. Chris Walker’s orchestrations, significantly reduced from the original scoring, are muddy and weak, and at the performance I saw, the brasses in the overture were quite sharp — not an auspicious way to start.
Particularly compared to the excitement of “Six” and “A Strange Loop,” or the splendid revival of “The Music Man,” all currently lighting up Broadway, “Funny Girl” seems like a museum piece,. It is interesting, but has, to borrow from Sondheim again, “no life.”
Funny Girl | August Wilson Theatre | 245 West 52nd Street | Tues, Thurs 7 p.m.; Weds, Fri, Sat 8 p.m.; Weds, Sat 2 p.m.; Sun 3 p.m. | $69 and up. (Prices vary by performance) | Funnygirlonbroadway.com or box office | 2 hours, 50 mins, 1 intermission