The 1964 musical “Funny Girl” has been Broadway’s hottest topic since it first played the Winter Garden Theatre, propelling its leading lady Barbra Streisand to a massive career. A show about the life and times of Ziegfeld Follies singer-comedienne Fanny Brice. In a role that plays to Streisand’s chops of physical comedy, high belting and emotional pathos, the show became an absolute star vehicle. “Funny Girl” has been, at least in the press, an epic about stardom rather than the titular Fanny Brice. So what does the show’s tour bring to the story on its latest North American tour? “Funny Girl” plays the Broward Center for the Performing Arts now until November 26 with tickets available here.
Carrying on a tradition of controversial casting from the Broadway production, leading lady Katerina McCrimmon was questioned for whether she would faithfully be able to play Fanny Brice, as an actress of non-Jewish heritage. However, I cannot report on McCrimmon’s performance as the performance I saw featured the alternate for Fanny Brice, Hannah Shankman, who was recently on Broadway as the understudy for Elphaba and Nessarose. But to my knowledge, Shankman is an actress of a Jewish background and her emphasis on certain Yiddish phrases and delivery lends credence to her heritage. While Shankman does not have any scheduled performances (aside from Thursday evenings), it was certainly a pleasant surprise to witness her as Fanny. Hannah Shankman as Fanny Brice continues another tradition the show has created for itself, which is an ebullient, young Jewish standby for Fanny that simply needs her moment in the spotlight. From Lainie Kazan, to Julie Benko, Shankman proves herself worthy of the task of a role that creates breakout stars. Not only do you get her belting “Don’t Rain on My Parade” to uproarious applause, well-timed comedic sensibilities on “I’m the Greatest Star,” and the signature song of the show, “People” which leaves audiences beaming with delight. Yet, by the end of the show she manages to absolutely devastate with a gravitas of the heartbreak and resilience of this interpretation of Brice’s story. On top of all this, Shankman bears a far closer resemblance to Fanny than many previous leads. As a gentile, I do not have a horse in this race at all but, with much of the show’s comedy derived from lampooning Jewish culture and phrases, to quote Jewish composer and godfather of musical Stephen Sondheim: “I don’t want to do the life of Fanny Brice with Mary Martin. She’s not Jewish. You need someone ethnic for the part.”
As the Overture, featuring a lush classic Broadway score by composer Jule Styne, ushers the curtain above the stage, Fanny Brice (Hannah Shankman) wanders lost amongst the throngs of figures from her past. Everyone from showgirls in massive feather headpieces to neurotic producers sway around her as she makes her way towards her vanity, uttering her iconic entrance line “Hello, Gorgeous” as she smiles in the mirror. As the moment is broken by her dresser Emma (Leah Platt), Fanny recalls the beginning of her career in vaudeville, dating back to her first role, being fired as a chorus girl for Tom Keeney (David Foley, Jr). Fanny’s mother, Mrs Brice (Barbara Tirrell) along with her disapproving friends, Mrs Meeker (Christine Bunuan) and Mrs Strakosh (Eileen T’kaye), scoff at the idea of the young lady becoming an actress as she was not considered beautiful in the same way that women typically on the stage were seen. With the program for the show listing singer Melissa Manchester as Mrs. Brice, Manchester unfortunately was injured only days before the Fort Lauderdale leg of the tour. Sadly, the injury is severe enough that Manchester will need surgery and is out of the show for the time being. Barbara Tirrell thankfully swooped in as an emergency replacement with very little notice, having been the understudy for Jane Lynch in the Broadway company. While I was a bit disappointed to not see Melissa Manchester, Tirrell gives such a great performance as the matriarch, I won’t cry out loud.
Fanny’s friend, the tap dancing confidant Eddie Ryan (Izaiah Montaque Harris) encourages her to once again audition for Tom Kenney, this time as a main act and boosting her confidence along with some needed choreography. In the Broadway production, the only acting Tony nomination that this production of “Funny Girl” received was for Jared Grimes in his portrayal of Eddie Ryan. Here on tour, Izaiah Montaque Harris rises to the occasion as Brice’s biggest supporter, but also gets a stellar solo tap number that absolutely brings the house down. As Fanny performs cornet man, her stunning performance captures the eye of the swarthy high-roller, Nicky Arnstein (Stephen Mark Lukas). Lukas, who was previously the understudy for Ramin Karimloo in the Broadway company tackles Arnstein with the level of nuance and charm that is written in the updated book for the character. The original score for the show features Arnstein only twice, but in adding cut songs back into the production, the new arrangements feature Lukas’s strident baritenor and have more interaction with Brice.
After Fanny leaves the theater of Tom Kenney, she is given an offer by the great vaudeville producer himself, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr (Walter Coppage). However, wracked by nerves when Ziegfeld forces her to sing a sappy love song called “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” Resplendent with chorus girls in ostrich feathers and a macho male ensemble donning silver suits, Fanny zigs in the face of a zag by appearing as a blushing bride, only to come out on stage with a cushion in her stomach, faking a pregnancy. What really stands out in these larger ensemble numbers such as “Rat Tat Tat Tat” are not only the strength of the performances, but also Susan Hilferty’s period piece costumes, some of which serve as living art, coming straight from the Broadway production. The combined choreography of Ellenore Scott and tap choreography by Ayodele Casel are highly adept at molding the signature movements of the 1920s into a story-telling device and providing massive, flashy classic Broadway.
At a certain point in the show I had to ask, why “Funny Girl?” Why now? While I am not sure if the Broadway producers always had a specific star in mind when bringing the show back to the Great White Way, you can at least surmise who the show is bringing out. Just looking at the demographics of the crowd that night seemed to answer my question. With a fairly even split, you have Baby Boomers who have nostalgia for the original production, but keep an open mind that they are not seeing someone trying to replicate Barbra. On the other hand, you have Millennials and Gen Z’s who may not have nostalgia for Babs, but can name every single song in the show from being featured on the hit TV show “Glee.” Director Michael Mayer plays every bit of this revival extremely safe, mostly keeping to the story beats of Harvey Fierstein’s update of Isobel Lennart’s book. While some book changes attempt to streamline the show’s movement, the inclusion of some songs that were originally cut end up dragging the pace of the show, especially in the second act. Having seen Fierstein shows like “Newsies” and “Casa Valentina,” there is a dry, almost drag queen-like approach Fierstein has to a script in throwing in a catty retort or a sassy one-liner here and there that seems to halt the script more when holding for a laugh.
David Zinn’s set design may have been modified for tour with scrims and a large newspaper curtain coming down for the sets that need more time to physically change, but with a good chunk of the show taking place in the New Amsterdam Theater (where Aladdin is currently playing), there’s not much stretch of the imagination for where the show takes place. Though, granting the grace of a vaudeville setting may be too gracious for primarily very flat and one-dimensional representations of city streets and Long Island mansions.
While some modernization of the book took place when approaching the material, it is hard to see this show as more than a museum piece. The film version of “Funny Girl” works so well, because it leans into the reality of Fanny Brice’s situation and much of the gender politics of the pre-World War I entertainment industry. The song “My Man” was a staple of Brice’s routines and unfortunately offered a grim portrait of the romanticized version of the misogyny she endured for her love of both her career and Nick Arnstein.
From the original production’s rumors of production changing the keys to or outright cutting songs depending on Babs’ mood and a feud with Streisand and her understudy Lainie Kazan, the drama off-stage made the show a thing of theatrical legend. However, the show has not been revived properly on Broadway until 2022, due to changing owners of the rights to the material and a series of directors attempting to bring the material back to the Great White Way. With an even bigger drama surrounding the revival’s controversial casting of Beanie Feldstein and her eventual replacement Lea Michele, resulting in a larger-than-fiction story. While Feldstein was gravely miscast due to her lack of vocal training prior to performing in “Funny Girl,” there is at least a sense that the creative team was taking a massive and dramaturgically fascinating risk. At its core, “Funny Girl,” is the story of a young Jewish woman who is told she could never be famous by producers and her mother for not being conventionally attractive in eurocentric beauty standards. By giving a plus-size actress the ability to play the role of Fanny, the character’s motivations for staying with Nick and accepting grief are far more readily understood and it adds a certain modern urgency. Because she is “funny” and not “beautiful” she can be charming, but someone finding her attractive feels more like an exception than a rule. Similarly, we can look at Effie in “Dreamgirls,” in her moment of desperation during “And I Am Telling You,” where she exclaims how she will not allow Curtis to leave her. Because the role of Effie was originated by a plus size actress Jennifer Holliday, her frenzied grasp for affection from a man who won’t reciprocate is understood. For a more recent example, Dame Helen Mirren delivers a savage line in Barbie (2023) when Margot Robbie’s character cries about no longer being pretty after major events in the film.
“Note to film makers: Margot Robbie is not the right person to cast to make this point.”
“Funny Girl” is, in a sense, a star vehicle for its lead. While the many young names on the cast are not household yet, the immense talent that this tour cast carries, any of the leads could be tomorrow’s Barbra. Performing an immensely tall order from composer Jule Style and Bob Merrill gives not only the vocalists a run for their money, but one of the show’s absolute biggest positives is utilizing a large pit orchestra of primarily local musicians. From the overture, washes of gorgeous Hollywood strings, to an audibly large Broadway brass ensemble and a percussion line keeping up challenging jazz syncopations all combine to this lush seventeen-piece symphony that is easily worth the price of the ticket alone. “Funny Girl” plays the Broward Center for the Performing Arts now until November 26 with tickets available here.