What would you rather see: Fanny Brice singing on a tugboat in New York harbor, or a real live Fanny Brice in the Ziegfeld Follies?
Funny Girl, the original 1964 Broadway musical, is a real stage animal, revisiting a classic era of American theatre. Most of its scenes are about theatre life and are set backstage or onstage, which means a live version is far more effective than the famous film.
Why is it so seldom produced? It is the only truly acknowledged classic musical that has never had a Broadway revival. Is it “People,” that song, now a standard, which was a hit single in the day, but rarely recorded by other artists? Is it the remembered unique magnificence of its original star (who will not be named here)?
Banish these thoughts. When you hear Victoria Healy sing “People,” you will believe you’ve never heard the song before. She sounds like no one else and doesn’t try to. She is her own performer and her Fanny Brice is rich in the comedy that subtly masks the pain of a tragic romance.
Max Redman’s simple design sets the many scenes against a backstage unit, which makes sense, as Fanny is “always on.” The locales jump from lower-class 14th Street vaudeville stages to the Follies of Broadway, and we are swept up in the story of the driven and talented Fanny Brice who used comedy to propel herself to fame as a torch singer. Tara Bower’s costumes and Lisa Miller Challenger’s wigs skillfully recreate both the pre-WWI era and the Roaring Twenties. Eric Baker’s lighting is spotlights, curtain warmers and flashing bulbs surrounding the proscenium. It is all pure theatre.
Director Renee Dobson has guided her star to a multilayered performance. Healy’s singing is first rate in comedy numbers such as “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” as well as the memorable ballads “The Music That Makes Me Dance” and “Who Are You Now?” She is always the Jewish clown offstage, illustrating that she must deal with the truth that she could never make it in a show business where “girls” were either hoofers, strippers or showgirls. The tragedy comes when she rejects the boy-next-door for the glamorous, elegantly dressed, society gambler Nick Arnstein, who represents everything that a poor Brooklyn girl can never achieve. But Fanny’s supreme drive and confidence would be bad news for any man, especially a twenties dandy who values masculine pride above all else.
Brett Anderson is outstanding as the dance director who loves Fanny for who she is and is always ignored. His singing and dancing are highlights, and when he teams with Rosemary Benson (as Fanny’s pushy mother) in “Who Taught Her Everything,” their comic skills give us a brief respite from the ever-forceful Fanny.
Brices’s drive is what we remember from this production. The love story is not nearly as successful since the miscast Paul McElwee is simply not the fellow described in Isobel Lennart’s script.
The ensemble is outstanding as well, singing and dancing with dynamism. Matt Flocco has exactly the stilted voiced tenor of the period in “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.” The excellently-researched choreography was by the above-mentioned Brett Anderson.
The score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill is unforgettable, which again makes one question the rarity of productions. Musical Director David T. Snyder has to cope with the usual dinner theatre recorded orchestra, but the cast does very well with it.
Who knows when a production of Funny Girl will visit this area again? This is a good one, and serious theatergoers and fans of musicals should hurry to grab those quickly disappearing tickets. Opening night at Candlelight Dinner Theatre was sold out, and many other performances are as well.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with an intermission.