theater review

If Someone Takes a Spill: Funny Girl Returns

Beanie Feldstein in Funny Girl, at the August Wilson. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Building an immense show around one person is a gamble. In 1910, the impresario Florenz Ziegfeld rolled the dice with the comic performer Fanny Brice — he invited her to headline his Follies, a recurring series of spectacles constructed around the flawless, interchangeable Ziegfeld girls. In that year, and intermittently for decades after, Brice was the axis for his carousel of glitz. A brilliant comedienne, Brice soon perfected her wildly popular, pratfalling, face-pulling shtick, and then, once Ziegfeld asked her to do the song “My Man” straight in 1921, she became a great tragic singer, too. As a humorist, she had become a galactic star. But Ziegfeld had seen another color in her — and the risk paid off.

In 1964, while casting the Brice biographical musical Funny Girl, David Merrick made a similar bet on Barbra Streisand. She was already known for her voice and a Tony-nominated turn in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, but she had never been a leading lady. She was also 21, and no one knew whether she could act, let alone play an iconic figure like Fanny. Some team members wanted Anne Bancroft or Carol Burnett, but composer Jule Styne found that Streisand’s brass-and-velvet sound had infiltrated its way into his music. So the creative team pushed all their chips in for Barbra.

Now the producers of the Funny Girl revival make their own gamble. In transferring Michael Mayer’s production from London, they’ve constructed their show around the 28-year-old Beanie Feldstein — like Babs in 1964, a Broadway sophomore. Just as Ziegfeld did, they hope one type of talent will translate to another arena, that Feldstein’s precise comic touch in movies like Booksmart and Lady Bird will transform into the necessary Big White Way charisma. Every revival is in conversation with the past, but Funny Girl has a funny place in the popular music pantheon, and casting it seems particularly fraught. (This is its first Broadway revival.)

Some of Feldstein’s assets do make the trip over from film: She’s winningly fresh; she gives great “bumble;” she has beautiful eyes the size of hubcaps, which roll and twinkle and flirt. In the first act, when Brice is an inexperienced gal blustering her way into the big time, Feldstein exudes a nice mix of hard-charging ambition and surprised giddiness when she succeeds. But in song after song, Feldstein’s voice lets her down. Piercing and unpleasant when it gets any higher than her chest, fading and pitchy when it descends even a few steps, it’s simply not a sound you expect to hear on Broadway. Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill wrote some stunners for Funny Girl, including “People” and “Don’t Rain on my Parade.” The latter song sits in Feldstein’s narrow comfort range, and so she blasts it out — particularly its final note — with foghorn force (if not phrasing). Everything else, though, goes sour.

There’s a palpable sense that the rest of the production is running hard to make up the relay. The night I saw it, the overture got excited applause — as the orchestra hit certain recognizable strains, director Michael Mayer bumped the lightbulbs around the proscenium, and the crowd (already in love with Beanie? With the music? With memories?) gave little shrieks of delight. It’s not exactly the musical you remember, though. Harvey Fierstein has created a new version of Isobel Lennart’s book, cutting a good chunk of dialogue and restructuring the second act so that it focuses on Brice’s feckless beloved, Nick Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo). Fierstein has said he wanted to find the Funny Girl we remember inside the Funny Girl that actually was. Apart from some rather confusingly reapplied songs (the newly interpolated “Temporary Arrangement” needs to convey a lot — and doesn’t), he does the job.

When Brice is young and unknown, she assures her mama (Jane Lynch), as well as her friend, choreographer Eddie (the tap genius Jared Grimes), that she’s going to be a star. High-roller Nick comes backstage one night and clearly agrees. After getting the call-up from the divine Ziegfeld (Peter Francis James, doing a lot with little), Fanny ascends, both into her celestial career and gambler Nick’s arms. People tell her not to trust him; she does anyway. “I simply gotta march / my heart’s a drummer,” she hollers at us/them/the world, and then their relationship falls right down the Act 2 steps.

Whatever Fierstein’s contributions, it’s still a musical written in Brice’s dominating shadow: the original producer Ray Stark was her son-in-law. So if you want to know how she actually elbowed her way up the vaudeville circuit, you’ll need to look elsewhere. The messy truth is far from Lennart’s misty-eyed libretto, which elides the real Fanny’s first marriage and her many trips to Sing Sing, where she visited her mooching, criminal, married beau. You sense that harsher reality struggling under the musical’s hagiographic blanket, though, especially in the way Brice’s character flattens and falsifies in the second half.

It’s lucky, therefore, that Karimloo brings a honeyed voice and such capacity to his part. His Nick is a sexpot (not to spoil anything, but he did pioneer the shirtless Valjean moment in Les Misérables), a clown (during a very silly seduction scene, he bounces from the floor to a chaise while remaining perfectly horizontal), a charming addict, a secret boor, and, in a superb final moment, a broken man. Jane Lynch flutters at him, as do all the busybody noodges down in Brooklyn (Toni DiBuono is a particularly good Mrs. Strakosh), and his sweetness with them and with Fanny carries a great deal of the first act. He and Feldstein make their early romance flicker with humor and heat — her zany awkwardness makes him feel awkward, which, for a smoothie like Nick Arnstein, must feel like getting hit by a bus. Feldstein seems flummoxed by the transition to more adult scenes in part two, however, and Karimloo winds up playing those almost as if he’s alone.

Funny Girl does not want you to think about that too much, so it hurls dance-filled production numbers to distract you. Admittedly, Mayer and choreographer Ellenore Scott’s Follies don’t feel that glamorous, despite the amazing costumes by Susan Hilferty (women dressed as flowers, as silver soldiers, as … leggy wedding centerpieces?) and various explosions into virtuosic tap choreographed by Ayodele Casel. Perhaps it’s because of a pervading visual glumness: David Zinn’s set consists of two black spiral staircases and a central playing area that closes over occasionally with curving brick walls — these make some scenes look like they’re being played outside a lighthouse. The big extravaganzas are still welcome, though. Feldstein’s best moment is a Follies sequence, in which she adorably undercuts a ponderous tribute to marriage, and the musical exerts its power to entertain. In fact, the numbers work well enough that I hankered for yet more comedy in these bits. It should have been a doddle: Just watch this trailer for the movie Ziegfeld Follies, and try not to giggle at Lucille Ball’s obvious terror.

But this is not really a show about shows—it’s a show about a woman. It spends most of its time with her, listening to her, sympathizing with her. When it comes to function, Fanny’s songs are the whole caboodle: They must explain Brice’s titanic success, they should carry the narrative forward, and they need to do something painful to our hearts. Feldstein cannot sing them. It seems brutal to place a woman in such an exposed position, where a whole Broadway production rests on notes she can’t sustain. Though, you know, I don’t think it’s inevitable that a strained, everyday voice would necessarily ruin the calculation at the heart of the musical. Funny Girl is itself preoccupied with celebrity, and the mechanisms of fan-love are an un-extractible part of the experience. Why was Brice such an immense star? Watching clips of her work, it seems a mystery; some alchemy must have taken place, and we in the future are missing the chemical ingredients. I can picture a version of Funny Girl that makes that case — that an odd lady with an odd voice nevertheless had it. But Feldstein doesn’t give us that, either. Vocal issues, you can work around. But presence? That one, you gotta have.

Funny Girl is at the August Wilson Theatre.

If Someone Takes a Spill: Funny Girl Returns