Funny Girl. Music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Bob Merrill. Original book by Isobel Lennart. Revised book by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Michael Mayer. Choreography by Ellenore Scott. Tap choreography by Ayodele Casel. Music supervision and direction by Michael Rafter. Scenic design by David Zinn. Costume design by Susan Hilferty. Lighting design by Kevin Adams . Sound design by Brian Ronan. Hair design by Campbell Young Associates. Associate director Johanna McKeon. Orchestrations by Chris Walker. Dance, vocal, and incidental music arrangements by Alan Williams. Additional arrangements by Carmel Dean and David Dabbon. Music coordination by Seymour Red Press and Kimberlee Wertz. Vocal supervision by Liz Caplan.
How could it be otherwise? This is one of those shows that has nestled permanently within the hearts of pretty much every musical theater fan alive, whether through bragging rights of having been there six decades ago, or from years of listening to the original cast recording, or from seeing the 1968 film version. The details may have faded in recollection, but the meteoric emergence of its then 22-year-old lead performer has led so many to believe then and now that in all of the world so far, she's the greatest star. You know who I mean without my saying her name. Who can compete with that?
Not, unfortunately, Beanie Feldstein, whose placement into the role of Fanny Brice, the Ziegfeld Follies comic star at the center of the narrative, makes for quite a display of chutzpah itself.
It would be unfair to suggest that Feldstein is without talent. Her acting, singing, and dancing skills served her well in what was a supporting role in the 2017 Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly!. And through her television and film work, Feldstein does have an enthusiastic fan base. If that fandom leads to ticket sales, this production of Funny Girl may very well repay its investors.
The problem here, however, is that the role of Fanny Brice demands both spot-on comic timing and the ability to perform and absolutely sell songs that have become permanent fixtures in the repertoire of twentieth century show tunes: "People," "Don't Rain On My Parade," and "The Music That Makes Me Dance." Doing these justice calls for a balance of belting and an outpouring of emotionally gripping singing. The original actress/singer could pull it off because she was absolutely the right person at the right time to play the part. But belting and emotionally gripping singing lie outside of Feldstein's musical talents, at least that's the case at this stage in her Broadway career.
Beanie Feldstein is far more successful at handling the career side of the story, and she pulls off her two Ziegfeld Follies numbers ("His Love Makes Me Beautiful" and "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat") with gusto. But the romance and later falling-out between Brice and Arnstein fail to catch fire. Coupled with other problems with the production, it would appear that perhaps director Michael Mayer likewise has bitten off more than he could properly chew.
If Feldstein is either miscast or inadequately directed, the same can be said of Ramin Karimloo. Even with his leading man looks and strong singing voice, his experience performing as Jean Valjean and as the Phantom of the Opera did not prepare him for the role of Nick Arnstein, a character who is a pretty much a cipher as written and therefore needs to be fleshed out in performance. The re-insertion of a solo number ("Temporary Arrangement") that had been previously excised from the show does put more meat on the bones, but in tone and style, it might be a better fit for a Cy Coleman show (I'm thinking City of Angels) than for Funny Girl. Ellenore Scott's choreography does not do Karimloo a great service either and leaves him awkwardly floundering.
Then there is Jane Lynch as Fanny's mother. On the plus side, she does come off like an appropriately old-fashioned trouper, someone who quite likely could "wack a joke from here to Hackensack," but her Jewish-mother-from-Brooklyn portrayal does not exactly ring true, especially since she sounds rather more like Olympia Dukakis than Gertrude Berg. One wonders, as well, why her figure and height have been so exaggerated in Susan Hilferty's straight-line costumes and high, high heels that make it seem like she is walking on stilts. For that matter, Beanie Feldstein's costumes do not adequately denote the change from Brooklyn kid to big time star; "Sadie, Sadie Married Lady" in Act II looks pretty much the same as the teenager we met at the beginning of Act I.
Puzzling as well are the other design elements: David Zinn's set design, basically a revolving turret and a pair of staircases that look like they might have been left over from a production of the musical Follies; Kevin Adams's lighting design which does a lot of flashing on and off in rhythm to the music; and Brian Ronan's sound design that incorporates an unusual amount of reverb, possibly to provide some additional color to the singing now and again.
When you are dealing with an outsize character like Fanny Brice, a certain amount of chutzpah comes in handy. But to be effective, that kind of audacity needs to have a big payoff, with something genuine beneath the projection of self-confidence. But, like the penny-ante card games that Mrs. Brice and her cronies indulge in back on Henry Street, sometimes it is time to call a bluff. I'm calling it.