It must be difficult to cast Funny Girl. Whoever anchors the musical stands in the shadow of two stage titans: Fanny Brice, the vaudeville star whose life provides the (loose) basis for a show that’s basically the early 20th century version of A Star is Born, and Barbra Streisand, who originated the role as a relatively unknown 21-year-old in 1964 and blended a story of singular talent and inevitable fame seamlessly with her own. (Streisand also won the best actress Oscar for the 1968 film adaptation.) For the show’s first Broadway revival, producers have handed the reins to Beanie Feldstein, a Broadway sophomore (she made her debut in 2017 as Minnie Fay in Hello, Dolly!) primarily known for her sharp screen work in Booksmart, Lady Bird and as Monica Lewinsky in Impeachment: American Crime Story.
The casting makes sense on paper; Feldstein brings an endearing everygirl to Fanny. Her crisp comedic timing adapts well to the show’s slapstick gags and Fanny’s avant-klutz schtick; her deep brown eyes, wide as saucers, effectively project a real human on and off the meta-stage. Whether in diva mode or an anxious, awkward frenzy, Feldstein mostly hangs on to a torpedo of a character. But this is a musical, one with some full-tilt belting, and her singing just isn’t up to par. Paper-thin, reedy in the higher registers and overly nasal throughout, Feldstein’s voice is noticeably untextured compared to the rest of the cast. The role that gave Streisand some of her staples — People and Don’t Rain on My Parade, Funny Girl’s showstopper that Feldstein visibly musters every ounce of strength to blare – requires a power singer. Feldstein simply isn’t one.
Which is a serious problem when a show hinges on the story of one woman’s undeniable talent for the stage, let alone in a role pioneered by one of the most renowned singers of the last half century; the rest of the production, directed by Michael Mayer and choreographed by Ellenore Scott, seems to be hustling to compensate for this lack. That’s accomplished mostly by tap virtuoso Jared Grimes as Fanny’s dance director Eddie Ryan, a superb Ramin Karimloo as Fanny’s suave yet feeble-minded husband Nick Arnstein, and an always entertaining Jane Lynch as her straight-shooting, salon-owning mother. (Unfortunately for Feldstein, the Glee star’s casting serves as a reminder that Lea Michele, who publicly semi-gunned for the role for over a decade, can nail Don’t Rain on My Parade.)
The show, with original music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill from the book by Isobel Lennart, opens at Manhattan’s New Amsterdam Theater in the early 20s; Brooklyn-bred Fanny, now years into vaudeville stardom with a company called the Ziegfield Follies, has returned to the theater on the night of her husband’s release from prison for embezzlement. The anticipation triggers a flood of memories, which play as an extended flashback until late in the second act: Fanny’s start as a clumsy chorus girl desperate for stardom, honing her persona as a self-consciously unpretty comedienne, meeting the debonair gambler Nick Arnstein, supporting his dubious endeavors with her own money.
Harvey Fierstein’s revised book switches some numbers around – Mrs Brice and Eddie’s Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?, a highlight of the evening, is effectively moved to the second act – and cuts down on the second half to primarily focus on Nick’s feckless swanning and swirling of the drain. (The show runs nearly three hours, including a 15-minute intermission.) The arrangement works, especially as it provides a showcase for Karimloo’s Nick, at once a lout, a charmer, a sympathetic poker player down on his luck, a devoted husband, and a pitiable figure. Feldstein, generally good as a precocious young woman, seems befuddled by the evolution into romance and marriage, leaving Karimloo to carry later scenes near single-handedly. In the slapstick dining room seduction number You Are Woman, I Am Man, for instance, Karimloo jumps from the floor to the chaise while keeping his body horizontal, as if snapped by a rubber band; Feldstein, meanwhile, keeps up the game with a too-piercing cackle.
Ironically, a show about one woman’s spectacle, fame, and ineffable charm was strongest in its most populous moments – the Follies chorus, with elaborate, stunning costumes by Susan Hilferty (from diaphanous butterflies to gold-flecked soliders). The rowdy tavern number Henry Street, featuring an excellent Toni DiBuono as nosy neighbor Mrs Strakosh. The spin of the set by David Zinn, which manages to convey action from Brooklyn to Manhattan stages to a Cleveland train station in a rotating, center stage that occasionally resembled a brick turret. Grimes deserves another mention for his tap dancing, choreographed by Ayodele Casel, which was simply mesmerizing. The full glitz provided to His Love Makes Me Beautiful, in which Fanny improvises her debut for the Follies, was a highlight both for the production and for Feldstein’s finesse of full-body physical comedy on stage.
I felt for Feldstein, at times alone on stage singing numbers she just can’t fully carry. There are high points to this new Funny Girl – moments of comedy and genuine laughs. But this is Broadway; the bar is higher than that. Funniness alone didn’t make Fanny Brice, the musical character, a star.