Review: Feldstein seizes the unstable star in ‘Funny Girl’
A star is not yet born in the revival of funny girl. Beanie Feldstein is just a glimmer in the eyes of his producer. It’s a charming glow, perhaps a lucrative glow, but not the burst of ambition and verve the actress playing Fanny Brice needs to turn this behind-the-scenes 1964 musical with a gorgeous score and book medium into a vehicle for voracious and unstoppable talent.
Feldstein (Library) has heaps of spunk and cups like a mischievous child for indulgent parents, resorting to the explosive cackling that turned him around in 2017 Hello Dolly! such a delight. But Fanny, the legendary Jewish comedian and singer who became a stage darling before and after World War I, needs more: she has to be nervous, messy, a little crazy, and of course armed with a voice that knocks the rafters from their sockets. Jule Styne’s brassy, jaunty jazz carnival gives its leading lady the comedic boast “I’m the Biggest Star,” the syrupy but unforgettable love ballad “People,” and one out of my way, smash hit: “Don ‘t Rain on My Parade”. This is only the first act.
It’s such a bargain of great tunes and comedic bits, what could a Broadway dreamer resist? I would have liked the bet to be successful. Feldstein comes across as too sane, too sane, too positive to embody the cauldron of self-mockery, self-aggrandizement and self-doubt that led Fanny to success in the Ziegfeld Follies, then in the arms of handsome Nicky Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo, suavely solid). The latter, a debonair professional player, was supposed to be the love of his life, but he becomes an emotional and financial weight around his neck. In the end, Fanny has only one lover: the star.
If Feldstein had pure lung power and intuitive richness in phrasing, you could forgive him for just being cute and impatient, unable to touch the character’s sadness and anger. But his singing is as studied and limited as his stage work. She has a thin, nasal voice that no amount of manipulation by sound designer Brian Ronan can bring to sonic depth. I don’t mean Feldstein sings badly — she can belt a button or brood in the softer numbers — but she doesn’t let the music flow through her or show any lyrics that come to mind.
This is the first Broadway revival of funny girl, whose original run ended two years before I was born. So it’s fair to wonder where I get off in saying how Fanny should and shouldn’t be played? The sacred name must be pronounced: Barbra Streisand. She originated the role on Broadway and starred in the 1968 film version. Streisand’s nimble, soaring, honey-steel voice is there on the cast album; as an actress, her ineffable mix of sexy and goofy is on celluloid. His Fanny was a unique blend of Mae West, Groucho Marx and Greta Garbo – a sassy, irreverent and suffering soul in one package.
No actor should have to fill such vast shoes, so let’s find out what Feldstein does instead of an impression of Streisand. In her serious and somewhat naïve approach, she tells the story of funny girl from the rise and wisdom of a great, if troubled, trooper, to the wish-fulfillment fable of a moderately gifted young woman. Who knows? Perhaps this angle is what Feldstein fans would prefer, in a time when anyone with an Instagram account and 17,000 followers thinks they’re an influential celebrity. But on the stage of the August Wilson Theater there is a sense of emptiness – a well-rehearsed, dutiful emptiness – where there should be a restless combustion.
Still, there’s plenty to entertain: hearing Styne’s glorious music under the direction of Michael Rafter; abundant and joyful tap numbers choreographed by Ayodele Casel; stunning sets by David Zinn that combine the bricks and steel of the Brooklyn slums with the bright limelight of Broadway; and shelves of gorgeous costumes for Follies girls and poker players designed by Susan Hilferty.
Director Michael Mayer pulls it all together in a visually sharp, fast-paced production filled with ace supporting players: Jane Lynch as Fanny’s loving but cynical mother; Jared Grimes as his friend and happy tap-dancing booster, Eddie; and Peter Francis James as the starchy and imperious, but ultimately fatherly Florenz Ziegfeld. The jokes and dialogue from Isobel Lennart’s original book have been toned down and freshened up here and there by the great Harvey Fierstein, though the second act remains a headache. Unexpectedly, Fierstein’s involvement made me think, for better or worse, of his past projects: If I wanted Tracy Turnblad, I’d stream hair spraybut I was expecting a funny girl.
Buy your tickets here.