By Fern Siegel
was a funny girl — a funny Jewish girl who worked in burlesque and was a
headliner for the great Florenz Ziegfeld. A hit on radio, the multi-talented
Brice was beloved by many at a time when ethnic humor was in demand.
her son-in-law, produced the original Funny
Girl on Broadway and the hit 1968 movie musical, both starring the
inimitable Barbra Streisand, a perfect choice to play the singular Brice. And
Streisand’s legacy is tough for any performer to match.
Yet after a
nearly 60-year hiatus, the story of Fanny Brice’s (Beanie Feldstein) rise to
fame and her doomed love affair with gambler Nick Arnstein (a charming Ramin
Karimloo) is back on Broadway at the August Wilson Theatre. It’s still a
crowd-pleaser — entertaining, humorous and wistful. Brice, described as “a
bagel on a plate of onion rolls,” was always a hit on stage; but life off-stage
Many of the Funny Girl songs are now
classic show tunes, including “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” The
musical boasts sumptuous costumes by Susan Hilferty, while Harvey Fierstein has
lightly revised the sentimental book by Isobel Lennart. A winner is the melodic
Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score. Happily, the orchestra plays two overtures —
old-school style — before each act.
plays Brice’s saloon-running, wisecracking mother, and she’s clearly having a
good time. Unlike her born-to-perform daughter, however, she doesn’t boast a
Brooklyn accent with Jewish inflections. However, the performance I saw had
Julie Benko fill in as the lead — and she channeled Fanny Brice.
(“Fiddler on the Roof,” “Les Miserables”) had the audience rooting for her —
and her character. Her performance was captivating, and
if Feldstein leaves the show, the producers have a terrific replacement at the
ready. She’s even got chemistry with Karimloo.
Jared Grimes and Jane Lynch.
The original Funny Girl, it’s worth
noting, took liberties with Brice’s story, mostly because her ne’er-do-well
ex-husband, the litigious Nick Arnstein, was still alive. So the romance, which
suggests the innocent Brice fell for Arnstein, a sophisticated, handsome, rich
gambler with a ruffled shirt, is a stretch. Arnstein was a gambler — and a
swindler — who did time in Sing Sing long before Brice married him. And far
from committing crimes to escape his wife’s endless successes and prove
himself, as the musical contends, he happily took her money — for better or
won’t find those realities in the bio-musical — instead, we meet two people who
enjoy a genuine, if unconventional romance until circumstances tear them apart.
That’s part of the pathos of Funny
Girl; Fanny gets everything she wants — “Sadie, Sadie, married
lady” — except marital bliss. She’s not short on love, everyone from her Henry
Street neighbors to Eddy Ryan, her close friend and choreographer (the amazing
tap-dancing Jared Grimes), to enthralled sold-out houses nationwide, adores
even knock out the famed Ziegfeld (Peter Francis James), though he contends, in
one humorous bit, that she gave him an ulcer.
Brice (Beanie Feldstein, center) mocking “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” number.
Some of the
sexual politics seem arcane by today’s standards, as does the bridal pageant that
touts “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” Then again, Funny Girl is a period piece. The relief is
when Brice mocks the silly conventions of the male gaze and female submission,
proving parody is timeless. (And why eliminating the 1920s song “My Man” was a
The fun for
theatergoers is the totality of Funny
Michael Mayer fills the stage with big numbers and beloved songs, complimented
by David Zinn’s sets. The choreographers, Ellenore Scott and Ayodele Casel, who
handled the tap elements, keep the action lively. An outsized performer, the
brash, vulnerable Fanny Brice isn’t easy to capture. But her story is worth
telling. It remains, in whatever incarnation, tough, touching and uniquely
Girl, August Wilson
Theatre, 252 W. 52 St.
Running time: 2 Hours, 50 minutes