Review: ‘Funny Girl’ still belongs to Barbra Streisand, but Beanie Feldstein is easy to love
NEW YORK — No one could accuse Beanie Feldstein of playing it safe.
Starring in the first Broadway revival of “Funny Girl,” in the role that catapulted Barbra Streisand into the stratosphere, the captivating star of “Booksmart” has not let the fear of being compared to her idol stand in the way of her theatrical dreams.
Feldstein recently played Monica Lewinsky in the FX series “Impeachment: American Crime Story.” That role certainly has its share of baggage, but tackling Fanny Brice threatens accusations of sacrilege.
For Broadway theatergoers of a certain vintage, “Funny Girl” was the gateway drug that led to a lifetime habit of musical comedy. Memories of the original 1964 Broadway production have faded, but cast albums live forever, and VHS recordings of William Wyler’s 1968 movie allowed for repeat viewings of Streisand’s Oscar-winning performance during the pre-digital age.
Finding a Fanny after Streisand hasn’t been the only thing holding back a Broadway revival of “Funny Girl.” The show, which has an intermittently wonderful score by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill, is a level below “Gypsy” (for which Styne also wrote the music) and “Kiss Me, Kate” (another backstage musical with more bite).
At its best, “Funny Girl” distills the sound of Broadway’s late golden age. Two hits from the show, “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” have a permanent place in the American songbook. But song and story aren’t perfectly in sync.
For all the ups and downs in this musical saga about the life of legendary Jewish vaudeville star Fanny Brice, “Funny Girl” often leaves an impression of marking time. The draggy book by Isobel Lennart falls into many of the cliches of showbiz biography. Imagine “Gypsy” crossed with “A Star Is Born,” only with more sluggish pacing and sentimentality.
This new Broadway production of “Funny Girl,” directed by Michael Mayer at the August Wilson Theatre, features a retooled book by Harvey Fierstein. Mayer and Fierstein teamed up for the London production of “Funny Girl,” which starred Sheridan Smith in a revival that began at the Menier Chocolate Factory before moving to the West End.
There’s only so much reconstruction that can happen with a show built around such a well-known score. Fierstein’s most significant intervention is to shift the marital balance of power between Fanny and her dashing and rakish gambler husband, Nick Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo).
When the couple first meet, Nick is a sophisticated man of the world, and Fanny is hustling to get her foot in the door of showbiz. But once Fanny’s career takes off, she starts acting like a boss, not just at the Ziegfeld Follies, where she’s now a headliner, but at home, where she controls the purse strings.
Nick starts feeling emasculated, which should come as no surprise for a guy who prefaces his seduction of Fanny with the number “You Are Woman, I Am Man.” Fierstein isn’t importing anything that isn’t in the original material, but his revision clarifies the role Fanny has in the collapse of her marriage.
Feldstein’s Fanny is most convincing as a Long Island matriarch who wants everything to run according to her plan. As a wife, she’s as domineering as she is insecure, lovingly generous yet with the understanding that the buck stops with her.
The gain in prosaic realism comes at a loss in fairy tale magic. The character’s dazzle is diminished. Even Fanny’s bravura can seem workmanlike.
I fell in love with Beanie Feldstein in the 2017 Broadway revival of “Hello, Dolly!” with Bette Midler. That same year, the Harvard-Westlake graduate stole scenes and hearts in “Lady Bird.” After being dazzled by her comic grit in “Booksmart,” I tweeted that I wanted to become head of the Beanie Feldstein fan club.
All of this is to say I appreciate Feldstein’s unique self and have no desire to hold her up against Streisand’s impossible standard. But “Funny Girl” is a gigantic haul, and though she bravely acquits herself, she never makes the role her own.
Fanny Brice was a physical comedian of genius. She could also sing, not like Streisand, but in a style that made the songs as engaging as the shtick.
Feldstein has a mobile face and a knack for pratfalls, but she’s not yet a master clown. And her singing is a mixed blessing. She can belt “Don’t Rain on My Parade” with enough power to bring the audience ecstatically to its feet at the end of the first act, but her nonbelting voice rarely gains traction.
When Karimloo offers a brief reprise of “People” in the second act, the rich resonance of his singing reveals what we’ve been missing. Omar Sharif, who starred opposite Streisand in the movie, didn’t have the Broadway pipes that Karimloo possesses. He might not even have had the perfectly sculpted abs that Karimloo exposes in a shirtless scene in which he’s wearing only pajama bottoms.
Karimloo doesn’t try to match Sharif’s elegant mystique, but the gratuitous flaunting of his male beauty only throws into relief the contrast with Feldstein’s zaftig Fanny. Why couldn’t Nick have been reconceived with a touch more realism too?
Much fuss is made over Fanny not being conventionally beautiful. No one need remind this “bagel on a plate full of onion rolls,” as she puts it, that she’s no Follies showgirl.
When Florenz Ziegfeld (Peter Francis James) casts her in his show, she turns the finale into a sight gag by singing “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” with a pillow under her wedding gown to make it look like she’s pregnant. If audiences are going to laugh, she wants to be the one telling the joke.
Feldstein’s Fanny is usually good for a laugh, but more in the vein of a funny sidekick. The talent behind the character’s meteoric rise is something we have to take on report. Granted, the humor of Fanny Brice’s act may be lost in the sands of time. But Feldstein doesn’t quite have the theatrical confidence to convince us that this hoary music hall business could really kill.
Mayer’s production is most alive in those moments when Broadway virtuosity breaks out in the supporting cast. The tap-dancing of Jared Grimes, who plays Eddie Ryan, the dance coach who raises Fanny’s game, injects the revival with a resuscitating dose of theatrical joy.
As Fanny’s saloon-owner mother, Jane Lynch doesn’t always seem to belong to this hardscrabble New York Jewish milieu, but she plays up the female solidarity with Fanny, one strong independent woman to another. Toni DiBuono as Mrs. Strakosh and Debra Cardona as Mrs. Meeker help bring the Henry Street neighborhood to life with their gossipy interest in every turn in Fanny’s fortunes. In his portrayal of Florenz Ziegfeld, the impresario who quickly recognizes the gold mine he has in Fanny, James exudes an elegant authority.
David Zinn’s scenic design transitions with brisk efficiency from urban tenement to suburban mansion, with colorful road tour stops along the way. Susan Hilferty’s costumes go to extremes of glamour and bagel-adorned zaniness, so it’s almost a relief when Fanny is given something flatteringly simple to wear.
Feldstein’s Fanny is at her best when most vulnerably herself. “You think beautiful girls are gonna stay in style forever?” she says to one of her early naysayers. “I should say not! Any minute now, they’ll be out! Finished! And then it’ll be my turn!”
Her prediction proves correct in her case, but Feldstein deserves a big Broadway break better tailored to her gifts. What she deserves is a brand-new musical comedy that will do for her what “Funny Girl” did for Streisand.
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