It took courage for Feldstein to put on those proverbial shoes and sing and dance to them onstage at the August Wilson Theater, where director Michael Mayer’s splashy Broadway revival, the first, had its grand opening on Sunday night. (On Streisand’s 80th birthday, no less.) We admire courage — an essential attribute when playing a character whose intro number is titled “I’m the Biggest Star.” Rather than glowing, however, Feldstein’s star turn is an earthly achievement, better when performing the comedic aspect of the musical, and less compelling for the musical part. A better fit was her Minnie Fay in the “Hello, Dolly!” revival which starred Bette Midler.
Not bad at all, I must add: his vocal skills are adequate. In a professional vehicle built as a galvanizing showcase for its title character, however, you want to be taken for a ride that leaves you dizzy with the acceleration of songs like “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” It’s simply the expectation that “Funny Girl” sets up, and it’s also simply the case that no matter how much we root for the endearing Feldstein – and we certainly do – that ignition never happens. completely.
So maybe if you can look down you’ll find Mayer’s “Funny Girl” to be a pleasant diversion, an entertaining throwback to the heyday of musicals with lavish sets and costumes and shows off tunes that Mom and dad (or grandma and grandpa) recorded every night on the stereo. This production accomplishes that, with contributions from actors including Jane Lynch, a complete delight as Brice’s mother – I come to the conclusion that there’s nothing Lynch can’t do – and Jared Grimes in as tap-dancing prodigy and incredibly loyal Brice friend, Eddy.
Speaking of impossible, Ramin Karimloo plays Nicky Arnstein, the dream boat that knocks off Brice’s bloomers. In Harvey Fierstein’s new revisions of Isobel Lennart’s original book for the series, Karimloo has more to do, in particular applying his velvety baritone to songs added in a Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score – a list of songs that varies considerably from the 1968 film. Arnstein, a poker player by trade, here gets his own second-act socko solo, the new “Temporary Arrangement”, which is staged like a number of “Guys and Dolls “, with a chorus of dancing gangsters.
The new Nicky Arnstein from “Funny Girl”
Yet even with the tinkering, Arnstein remains a second-rate character in a behind-the-scenes bio-musical focusing on Brice’s rise in the 1920s to become a comic beacon in the extravaganzas of Florenz Ziegfeld (Peter Francis James, class radiant). The recurring jokes about the physical beauty disparity between Arnstein and Brice never struck me as particularly funny. “To tell the truth, it hurt my pride, the groom was prettier than the bride” is a clever lyric (in Feldstein’s “Sadie, Sadie”), but the repeated emphasis on the theme robs any serious exploration of their relationship. As a result, “Funny Girl” feels as superficial as those wispy Ziegfeld numbers, skillfully choreographed by Ellenore Scott and tap choreographer Ayodele Casel.
Outfitted in increasingly lavish dresses by Susan Hilferty, Feldstein takes a journey from edgy tyro to edgier pro. David Zinn contributes clever set design, with a central rounded brick building whose walls part to reveal street scenes, hotel suites and stages filled with showgirls. Comparisons are anathema, of course, but they are instructive in assessing the effect of Feldstein’s performance amidst all the theatrical refinements. Whereas, for example, you believed that Streisand was a star, with Feldstein your primary belief is that she thinks it’s a star. It’s a distinction with a difference, in that, with this latest Fanny Brice, this powerful illusion sometimes requires a more cooperative effort from the audience.
A certain useful internal electricity is turned on in Feldstein for the production numbers of the Follies, which constitute its best moments. He’s an adorably winning clown in “His Love Makes Me Beautiful”, the song that Brice sabotages out of insecurity about his appearance (this theme again). In Act 2’s “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” a silly Follies salute to the Armed Forces, Feldstein appears in uniform, goofy glasses, thick Yiddish accent, and a pair of bagels on his belt. Pointing to his gluttonous arsenal, Feldstein delivers the punchline perfectly. “Onion or poppy seed? ” she asks.
Given the pedigree of the brassy ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ – one of those damn-the-torpedoes killer anthems that reliably raise the heart rate – Feldstein has the daunting task of sending audiences into pause on a literal high note. She sings from her heart, and if it was just her heart that was asked, she would be a Fanny Brice for the ages.
funny girl, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill. Original book by Isobel Lennart; book edited by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Michael Mayer. Choreography, Ellenore Scott; tap choreography, Ayodele Casel; sets, David Zinn; musical direction, Michael Rafter; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Brian Ronan; orchestration, Chris Walker. With Toni DiBuono, Debra Cardona, Martin Moran. About 2 hours 50 minutes. At the August Wilson Theater, 245 W. 52nd St., New York. funnygirlonbroadway.com.