One big mistake made in the new revival of FUNNY GIRL has nothing to do with Beanie Feldstein.
Those who have seen the 1964 musical, be it on Broadway in the ‘60s or at their local high school last month – and/or those who memorized that Grammy-winning original cast album – will be surprised or even shocked when “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?” doesn’t show up in the scene where they’ve always known it to be.
Why drop such a socko number? Now that Fanny Brice has received interest from FOLLIES producer Florenz Ziegfeld, Fanny’s mother Rose as well as Eddie, her cheerleader who’s bursting with unrequited love, fear what her success will bring. Won’t it mean that she’ll soon leave them behind? Sings Eddie, “They all forget they know you when it comes to credit.”
(And Lord knows many do.)
As inexplicable as the elimination of the number is, a bigger shock comes early in the second act. The song has not been cut but instead repositioned after Fanny has become the greatest, most glamorous, genuine, glorified Ziegfeld star.
So why, all these years later, after Fanny has been non-stop loyal to both during her trip to the top, would they now worry that she’ll drop them?
Did Harvey Fierstein, who massaged Isobel Lennart’s book or someone else make the move because the show’s first act is unusually long? In an era where theatergoers are fast becoming accustomed to leaving after 90 minutes, here an hour-and-a-half only gets them to intermission.
Still, if you’re not going to use a number correctly, don’t use it at all. Dropping it, although a bad case scenario to be sure, would be the lesser of two evils.
Fierstein also errs in his new approach to “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” Both the original stage property and the film relied on the idea that a man’s love did indeed make a less-than-alluring woman feel attractive. Here Ziegfeld states beforehand that he’s choosing Fanny because she’d be funny in the number.
Well, if it’s humor he’s going for, why is he furious with Fanny’s getting an even bigger laugh by pretending to be eight-and-a-half months pregnant? Fierstein understandably kept the concept that Ziegfeld is ready to wield his terrible swift sword for her making a change without consulting him. Still, given that he conceived the number as a laugh-getter – and that he’s a showman who wants to please his public – he’d readily and graciously admit much more quickly that she got more laughs with her idea than with his.
However, Fierstein did have a notion that gets the show off to a slightly different and better start. As has been the case since the Boston tryout, Fanny enters her dressing room on the day that husband Nick Arnstein is to be released from prison after he’s served a three-year sentence for embezzling. Now, though, as Fanny looks in the mirror, she sings a little of (the much-underrated) “Who Are You Now?” Considering that a thousand days have passed, Fanny could well question who she’s become in that long period of time and who Nick might be, too.
Yet director Michael Mayer or Fierstein have made this Fanny much less easy to love. When she first enters, she thrusts off her mink coat and leaves it on the floor for her maid to retrieve. We can consider pardoning her because this is an emotional day for her, but she’ll do it again later when she isn’t as distraught. Such behavior makes us want the star with a sense of entitlement taken down a peg or two.
Worse, in Fanny’s first-ever (incompetent) appearance at Keeney’s Music Hall, she approaches a chorus girl who’s correctly doing her job and shoves her to get out of her way. Not nice, Brice.
And our current Funny Girl? She deserves immense credit for one important aspect: Beanie Feldstein never, ever does a Barbra Streisand imitation. Unlike Craig Bierko, who in the 2000 revival of THE MUSIC MAN simply replicated Robert Preston’s delivery, Feldstein in no word or lyric ever verbally photocopies what the superstar brought to Fanny Brice.
However, many of Feldstein’s choices, in conjunction with her collaborators, aren’t thrilling. She does a good deal of indication on her lyrics. “And ten American beauty toes,” she sings, thrusting out a foot, lest we forget where toes reside on a human body.
Although Feldstein radiates immense confidence that she can play this room, throughout the show, from stem to sturm und drang, she seems woefully immature and callow. Here’s the irony: Streisand wasn’t quite 22 when she opened the show and around 25 when she filmed the movie, yet she always came across as in charge, savvy, wise for her years en route to becoming a sophisticated woman. Feldstein, although almost 29, always seems substantially younger.
Let her youth be her consolation. Perhaps the day will come when she’s fully ready for the role.
As for now, though, Feldstein often punctuates her punch lines with a cackle that is reminiscent of a witch in a spoof of a horror movie. She may make good on Fanny’s famous claim that she has 36 expressions, but most are mouth contortions that beg for isn’t-she-hilarious responses. That line that not-so-neighborly Mrs. Strakosh says that Fanny was cute “when you were a child and made funny faces” may well have once been true of Feldstein – but no more.
Here’s the real rub, though: Fanny must sing six magnificent solos and appear in five other numbers that composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill gave her. In her first attempt, Feldstein can’t convince us that she is indeed “the greatest star.” By the time she’s midway through her second chance (“Cornet Man”), we’re sure that she isn’t.
Much later, she does do well by “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” in which she plays the hapless Private Schwartz from Rockaway. Here we don’t mind that her voice has an unfortunate nasal quality that was particularly injurious to “People,” the beautiful ballad that audiences most want to hear. So by the time she reaches her eleven o’clock number, there’s no surprise that she can’t match the music of “The Music That Makes Me Dance.”
That title will be unfamiliar to those who only know the film, which substituted “My Man,” Brice’s biggest hit. The Styne-Merrill song is substantially better, although the lyricist erred by just having Fanny reiterate her love for Nick, who hasn’t earned it. A better approach would have been a “Rose’s Turn”-like showpiece where Fanny chastises herself for being so superficial to be taken in by good looks without any concern for a man’s moral compass or substance.
Ramin Karimloo, who in the recent LES MIZ revival proved that he was a fine singer, plays Nick. Giving him a second act reprise of “People” was an excellent idea. Why didn’t anyone think of this back in 1964 or 1968?
What did occur to the staff back then was to drop “A Temporary Arrangement” hours after the Boston tryout began. Throughout his career, Styne was famous for playing a melody for a potential collaborator, sensing when the listener wasn’t responding and immediately quipping “You don’t like this one? How about this?!” And off he went tickling the ivories with one tune after another until the lyricist showed enthusiasm.
“A Temporary Arrangement” comes across as one that Merrill should have greeted with a frown. It’s undoubtedly been restored simply to give Karimloo more to do.
Because LES MIZ is a through-sung musical, we didn’t have the chance there to learn that Karimloo has a peculiar and flat way of speaking. He doesn’t quite have a lisp or a speech impediment, but words don’t flow from his mouth with the ease of lyrics. His mouth seems to be under the influence of Claymation.
Jared Grimes does well as the long-suffering Eddie and makes the most of the nice opportunities that have been bestowed on him by tap choreographer Ayodele Casel. She is not to be confused with Ellenore Scott, who did the other dances. Her “Henry Street” afterparty that follows Fanny’s first triumph is especially winning.
As Rose, Jane Lynch is as Jewish as Christmas and Easter, all the while showing us that she’d be fine in a different musical. Being a Gentile isn’t a barrier for Toni diBuono, who knows how to deliver Mrs. Strakosh’s quintessential Second Avenue humor.
Lynch is excellent, though, when showing maternal feelings, calmly dispensing wise advice to her daughter, and always making a good deal of sense. She wouldn’t be able to do that if Lennart hadn’t given her the goods – and they are indeed good.
A musical’s book so often takes the heat as a show’s weakest link; FUNNY GIRL has particularly suffered lo these 58 years where everyone’s been carefully taught to feel justified and secure in damning it with no praise. And yet, the situation of a star waiting to reunite with her convicted husband on the day of his release offers inherent drama. Lennart’s dialogue also caught what makes Fanny funny.
Many musicals take longer to have their characters reach stardom (GYPSY comes to mind) but Lennart smartly got Fanny to quick success in Act One so that she could pull the rug out from her in her Long Island home in Act Two. Her book won’t come to any musical theater enthusiast’s mind when asked to name the 50 best librettos in Broadway history, but it doesn’t deserve the contempt it’s long endured.
Kevin Adams lights the show well, aside from a bizarre series of flashing lights surrounding the proscenium every time the orchestra reaches each note of “Don’t” in “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” David Zinn’s set design mostly involves a brick cylinder that splits opens to reveal the next new set. Seeing all that brick with a few windows almost makes the bulk of the show seem to take place outside a prison. Luckily, Susan Hilferty’s costumes ameliorate that problem with spark, panache and elegance.
The majority of those costumes go to Fanny. Alas, Feldstein brings to mind a young girl who goes into the attic and dons grown-ups’ clothes. There may well be a time when she’d ready for Fanny, but the time is not now.
Let’s be fair, though: Feldstein greatly pleased the substantially appreciative public that she’s cultivated from her stage and screen appearances. Many came to The August Wilson Theatre to cheer her wildly from her first entrance; they continued throughout the long performance. At her curtain call, fans couldn’t have risen to their feet any quicker if they’d been poked by electronic cattle prods.
So if you’re already in Beanie Feldstein’s camp, you may very well follow suit and not find her ill suited for FUNNY GIRL.