Despite being a musical-opera aficionado, I had seen “Funny Girl” performed on stage only once. The experience was half-memorable, half-forgettable. On Sept. 23, 2002, the Actors’ Fund of America presented a benefit performance of the 1964 musical that had made Barbra Streisand a star. At the one-night-only benefit, Peter Gallagher played Nick Arnstein and Kaye Ballard, a performer who lobbied hard to be the original Fanny Brice, played Mrs. Brice. The brilliant concept for the benefit, however, delivered no fewer than 16 actresses in the title role, each of them being assigned a song or a moment of extended dialogue.
I vividly remember Kristin Chenoweth delivering a hysterically funny “His Love Makes Me Beautiful”; Sutton Foster, having just opened in “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” sang “I’m the Greatest Star”; and Lillias White brought down the act-one curtain with “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” The buzz during intermission at the New Amsterdam, the site of all those Ziegfeld Follies, was nearly as loud as the ovations after each song: Why had “Funny Girl” never been revived on Broadway? It’s a great musical with classic songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill.
Then Act 2 happened. Oy vey! Isobel Lennart’s book took a nose dive into bad soap opera, and Styne and Merrill’s work sounded second-rate. Performers as gifted as Carolee Carmello, Jane Krakowski and Bebe Neuwirth could not bring “Funny Girl” back to life at that starry benefit performance.
The legend surrounding “Funny Girl” has always been that no performer could match Streisand, and so the show languished. Many articles in respected newspapers and websites have seconded that belief whenever a Broadway revival has even been suggested. Those articles reappeared as soon as it was announced that Beanie Feldstein would step into La Streisand’s bloomers. That revival of “Funny Girl” opened Sunday at the August Wilson Theatre.
Feldstein doesn’t possess Streisand’s voice, but what she does offer is a sweet, piping sound that encompasses the score’s range from E below middle C to a high F. Equally important, she respects that 1964 score and doesn’t modernize it with a lot of melismatic distortions. After her enchanting Broadway debut playing Minnie Fay in the Bette Midler “Hello, Dolly!,” Feldstein is a quirky, offbeat choice to play Fanny Brice. But then, Streisand was also a quirky, offbeat choice back in 1964. Carol Burnett and Anne Bancroft were the more conventional choices back then, and Brice’s daughter, Fran Arnstein Stark, wanted to see Mary Martin cast in the title role.
After seeing her in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” I wrote that Jessie Mueller should pick up the Brice torch. Feldstein did instead, and she makes an especially endearing Fanny. Just as Carol Burnett sports her great galumphing grin, Feldstein uses her open-wide overbite smile for great comic effect, especially in “You Are Woman” and “Rat-a-Tat-Tat.” That self-deprecation endears us to these two comedians. The word “endears” has never been attached to Streisand.
The big news surrounding this revival is not the leading lady, however. It’s the guys, director Michael Mayer and Harvey Fierstein, who revised the book. Fierstein has sharpened the dialogue throughout, and while the new second act is not vintage Broadway, it’s no longer a complete dud. In other words, it works. A simple glance at the original musical’s lineup of songs shows an imagination gap, with Act 1 not only getting the best material but a lot more material.
This revival wisely reprises “People” in the second act, making it a brief duet between Brice and Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo), and it adds the song “Funny Girl” from the 1968 film version. In a real surprise, Karimloo sings it first, delivering it as an ironic statement about his wife, and then Feldstein reprises it at the end before singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” a second time to end the show. No, the Brice standards “Second Hand Rose” and “My Man” aren’t sung. Styne and Merrill rightfully freaked out when those classics were added to the movie version, corrupting their original score.
This revival’s second act is also aided by reprising some brilliant tapping by Jared Grimes. Playing Fanny’s sidekick Eddie, Grimes stops the show with his flashy footwork in the first act. Choreography is by Ellenore Scott.
The revised book doesn’t fix the fact that the star becomes a reactive character in the second act. Also, Feldstein never convinces us that she has suddenly become a diva. The new second act does manage to make Arnstein a character worth watching, and this production is enhanced by Karimloo’s charismatic performance. It helps immensely that he reprises “People” briefly and goes on to sing “Funny Girl.” Karimloo left me unimpressed after his dull, braying performance in 2016’s “Anastasia” on Broadway. His vocals here display a far more impressive singing voice and are among the show’s highlights.
Jane Lynch disappoints as Mrs. Brice, unfortunately. She’s not so much bad as wrong. What is a Grant Wood painting doing on Henry Street in Brooklyn?