Review: I was skeptical of Lea Michele. Then I saw her deliver a tour de force in ‘Funny Girl’
What a difference a performer makes!
It was a life-or-death moment for the new Broadway revival of “Funny Girl,” which had been sputtering along since it opened this spring to tepid reviews and no love from the Tony Awards.
The primary interest has been in the backstage melodrama involving the revival’s original miscast star, Beanie Feldstein, and the show’s potential savior in the wings, Lea Michele, who showed up at the stage door trailing a heavy load of monogrammed baggage.
Before I proceed with this rave, I should probably make clear that I was until recently agnostic on Michele’s talent. I was never a “Glee” groupie — in fact, I doubt I ever watched a whole episode of the show. (I’m busy!)
I was tangentially aware that cast members had publicly accused her of bullying and racism. But I have celebrity scandal filter that is virtually impenetrable, and I was never all that interested in Michele to begin with. The few times I’ve seen her on talk shows or awards telecasts all I wanted to do was duck for cover.
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What I respond to most in a musical theater diva is distinctive personality — eccentricity, wit and an introspective glow. Ambition that smacks of entitlement and self-satisfaction is as much a turnoff for me as sentimental pleading. Michele could sing. That was clear. But I had my doubts about whether she had true theatrical sensibility.
Despite my gaping “Glee” blind spot, I was aware that Michele had been vying for years to star in the first full-fledged Broadway revival of “Funny Girl.” The trades kept me up to date on the on-again, off-again drama, but I read those reports with a yawn. Barbra Streisand’s mantle is the property of Barbra Streisand alone. I couldn’t imagine anyone approaching what she did with the role of Fanny Brice.
Michele’s performance in “Funny Girl” is one of the top five musical theater performances I’ve seen in my lifetime. The last time I was this overcome at a curtain call was after Patti LuPone turned “Rose’s Turn” into a gloriously harrowing nervous breakdown in the 2008 Broadway revival of “Gypsy.”
The mistiness I experienced at the end of her performance at the August Wilson Theatre was a purely physiological expression of gratitude. Theatrical excellence isn’t as common as you might imagine. I was thankful for having been present at one of those rare moments when everything falls into place on Broadway — the right performer in the right role at the right time and in front of the right audience.
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The timing was especially crucial. Had Michele originally been cast in this revival instead of Feldstein, the critics would have raved and she almost certainly would have won the Tony Award. As a replacement, she’s not eligible for a Tony. But I don’t think the performance would have had the same resonance had her past not thrown up roadblocks.
This was a make-or-break moment for Michele’s career. Had she flopped, the production would have gone down with her. And she likely would not have been offered another chance at redemption — at least not of this theatrical magnitude.
The stakes and the suffering are inseparable from her success. Michele understands Fanny’s drive not as an empty quest for fame but as a last-ditch attempt to be appreciated. She knows she has something special to share if only everyone would stop judging her prematurely — for not being beautiful or classy enough. For not acting the way women are supposed to act. For being young, self-involved and immature. For being damaged goods.
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The producers might be kicking themselves for not going with Michele in the first place, so perfectly cast is she in the role that has been fabricated from the real life of Jewish vaudeville star Fanny Brice. But if ever a performance grew wiser from hardship, it is this one.
As Mrs. Brice, Tovah Feldshuh (who replaced Jane Lynch) looks at her daughter as though she knows Fanny is destined for both greatness and unhappiness. There’s a helplessness in her gaze but also a good deal of love, ready humor and motherly interference.
Feldstein, a natural comic, animated Fanny’s revue numbers with more whirling daffiness. But vocally Michele is in full command of the role. When she sings “I’m the Greatest Star,” no one has to humor her.
Thankfully, her rendition of “Don’t Rain on my Parade” occurs at the end of the first act, because it looked as though many in the audience needed oxygen after what was perhaps the most thunderous standing ovation heard anywhere since theaters reopened.
But it’s the somber vulnerability she brings to “People” that makes the deepest impression. Michele’s Fanny isn’t singing this first act number to win the adulation of an audience. She has just proven to everyone that she’s a Ziegfeld star. She’s directing these lyrics to Nicky Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo), confiding them to him, baring the secret wishes of her heart.
The beauty of Michele’s moonlit singing transforms an insecure “funny girl” into a swan. It doesn’t hurt that there’s genuine chemistry between the leads. (When Feldstein was in the role, Fanny and Nick frolicked more like tender siblings than tempestuous lovers.)
“People” has been interpreted so often that few remember the context from which the song arises. Michele restores the aching longing that’s behind the lyrics and never allows her performing prowess to supersede her character’s intimate purpose.
“Funny Girl” has a second act problem that Harvey Fierstein’s revised book hasn’t fixed. The more Nick’s story swells, the more the musical cries out for pruning. (It’s not just Isobel Lennart’s book — even Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s score starts treading water.)
But Michele’s performance threads the needle of Fanny’s story. Nowhere is this truer than in the final scene, in which Fanny’s emotions are dissected with the precision of a scalpel.
In saying goodbye to her marriage to Nick, she moves from anger to hurt to acceptance with such natural progression that there seems no other choice but for her to embrace the one relationship that will never leave her — the stage.
With its laughter shot through with loneliness, “Funny Girl” seems less a vehicle for a star on the rise (or a diva in need of rescue) than a well-wrought musical comedy with a dramatic through line that’s unusually psychologically acute.
Streisand showed us this already, but Michele clarifies that it’s the show that provides the material. Proving herself a trouper, she makes Michael Mayer’s production seem less frivolous than when it first opened.
I wasn’t particularly excited by the prospect of sitting through this revival again. But I left understanding why tickets are going for a king’s ransom. Lea Michele is delivering a tour de force for the ages.
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