Though a stage and radio star of the first magnitude in her heyday in the teens and 1920s, singer-comedienne Fanny Brice’s fame endures largely for one reason: the stage and film bio-musical “Funny Girl.”
Though the 1964 show was a sensation, it has not had a single Broadway revival. Even in musicals-mad Seattle, it’s rarely produced. But you can take in its charms, and shortcomings, in the splashy new mounting of “Funny Girl” at Village Theatre, featuring the highly appealing Sarah Rose Davis in the lead.
“Funny Girl” is tough to tackle, in part, because it’s forever linked to one person — one very special person: Barbra Streisand, who was on the cusp of superstardom when the musical propelled her way over the top. (She later won an Oscar for the movie version.)
Custom-built for Streisand, this tuner demands a leading lady with her own individual star quality, as well as comic chops, the New York Jewish pizazz, and the voice to master such soaring Jule Styne/Bob Merrill tunes as “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “People.”
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Making Isobel Lennart’s lumpy, heavily fictionalized book, which is full of broad shtick and marriage melodrama, click between the parade of mock vaudeville and follies-style numbers is even harder.
Village director Steve Tomkins got the casting just right, by giving Davis her own well-deserved breakout shot.
As the brash, multitalented and unsinkable young Fanny, Davis is disarmingly gauche and driven — a showbiz kid who browbeats an all-powerful impresario into hiring her for one of his lavishly upscale Ziegfeld Follies, into which she boldly injects her trademark zany clowning.
Thanks be that Davis can execute a good pratfall, swoon amusingly over Fanny’s debonair future husband, gambler Nicky Arnstein (Logan Benedict), and make a certain blend of chutzpah and insecurity seem charming.
Moreover, Davis can really sing the score. She isn’t a brassy belter, but has the power to put across Fanny’s big declaration “Don’t Rain on My Parade” with panache. And her heartfelt renditions of the ballads “People” and “The Music That Makes Me Dance” are even better. (The expert orchestral performance, led by musical director Bruce Monroe, is a big plus, too.)
As usual at the Village, the show looks swell. The faux-Ziegfeld number, with showgirls descending a white stairway to model tall feathery headdresses (think Cher) pours on the razzle-dazzle with glitzy costumes (by Karen Ann Ledger) and lighting (by Aaron Copp). Bill Forrester’s painted scenic backdrops play effectively with old-timey-theater ambience.
Tomkins keeps a lot of elements smoothly on track, and Kristin Holland has choreographed snappy ensemble numbers — like the kitschy patriotic spree, with leggy chorus gals toting rifles while tapping. And she makes the most of the dazzling footwork of John David Scott, who plays Fanny’s hoofer pal.
But the ethnic-flavored jokes assigned to Fanny’s steadfast Jewish mama (Bobbi Kotula) and her nosy Lower East Side pal (Jayne Muirhead) are about as stale as a three-day-old bagel.
And Benedict doesn’t do much with a part that’s bland to begin with. The musical’s mawkish version of Arnstein as a repentant bad boy adored by a Fanny who loves too much is a lot nicer, and less scandalous, than what really went down between the real Nick, a hard-core crook and sponger who often humiliated his famous wife.
OK, so it’s a Broadway fairy tale; you can wish it were a much better one. But Village couldn’t wish for a better Fanny from the local talent ranks than the winning Davis.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org