Monday, April 10, 2023

Musical Revivals I: Funny Girl and Dancin’

Lea Michele in Funny Girl. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

The Broadway revival of Funny Girl is a hit, but its path has been slippery. Michael Mayer’s production started in London, opening at the Meunier Chocolate Factory in 2016 with Sheridan Smith. But when it transferred to the Savoy Theatre in the West End, Smith dropped out due to stress and exhaustion and was replaced by her understudy, Natasha Barnes. That’s when I caught it, and without a luminous Fanny Brice to anchor the musical that made Barbra Streisand famous – and vice-versa – it wasn’t much. The modesty of the staging and designs was just over the line from looking seedy, and since the cast was so small, the supporting players as well as the chorus had to join in the dances that bridged – somewhat desperately – the many scenes, Funny Girl being a representative of the last successful decade of large-scale Broadway musicals.

But Smith returned eventually, and you can see her sensational performance (filmed at The Palace in Manchester) on BroadwayHD. To quote one of Bob Merrill’s lyrics, Smith hits the show like a meteorite. She’s indubitably the funny girl Isobel Lennart’s book demands (her physical comedy triggers memories of the era of silent screen comedy) but there’s an unexpected delicacy to her reading of the role, like Bernadette Peters at her finest. And she operates on an audience – or a viewer – in an almost spookily personal way. When Ziegfeld hires Fanny away from her slot in Keeney’s downtown variety theatre and she balks at his plan to feature her in the first-act finale of the Follies as a glorified Ziegfeld girl proclaiming “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” her reasoning is that she’s such a meeskite that the audience will just laugh at her. He points out that she’s a comic; they’re supposed to laugh at her.  “With me, not at me,” she explains; it has to be her joke. And just like Fanny, Smith gets us on her terms – she pulls us into her comedy, pulls us onto her wavelength. Not to get too fancy, but there’s an element of Brechtian commentary to the way she plays the laughs in “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” and “You Are Woman,” where, with a juicy mix of wide-eyed astonishment and glee, she lets the gambler Nicky Arnstein, who will be the love of her life, seduce her in the private salon of an expensive restaurant. While she goes full force at the jokes (and they’re great jokes), at the same time she seems to be asking us, “Isn’t this hilarious?” and “Can you believe this?” When Streisand took the part to the screen in 1968, four years after she’d opened with it on Broadway, she drew on the full gamut of a staggering talent to reinvent the idea of the old-fashioned movie star, which had pretty much faded out; even when she seems to be parodying it, she’s resurrecting it. Smith counters with a dramatic portrayal of a vaudeville performer, one that has a genuine sense of discovery, as if the actress were finding the character as she goes along. Her version of Fanny contains a defiant quality that makes us love and admire her but also unsettles us; we can see from the moment she walks out on a pre-Follies tour to surprise Nick in Monte Carlo, protesting to her friends that she’ll make it right for him, that her controlling impulses don’t bode well for their relationship. But they keep her alive when he comes back from a prison sentence (for a phony bond deal he grabs at because only her success, her money, have been keeping him afloat) and calls off the marriage. In her dressing room, about to go on stage, she climbs out of her sorrow as she segues from the plaintive title ballad to a soaring reprise of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” reminding herself of who she is, even without Nick: “Who is the pip with pizzazz? / Who is as glamorous as?”

God knows why, when Mayer’s revival finally made it to Broadway last year, Beanie Feldstein, who had been hard to take as Minnie Fay in the otherwise delightful Bette Midler Hello, Dolly!, managed to win the plum role of Fanny. Her reviews were disastrous, while the response to Julie Benko, her standby, when Benko replaced an ailing Feldstein, was enthusiastic. Feldstein left the show in July, two months earlier than she’d originally planned, and Lea Michele came on and will continue until the musical closes at the end of the summer. Curious about Michele’s much-touted performance, I saw a matinee a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps it wasn’t her best show. Her rendition of “I’m the Greatest Star” was perfectly adequate but not especially fresh; she was more vivid on “Cornet Man,” Fanny’s first solo at Keeney’s. Some of what Michele did was lovely, like “People” (which is tough to animate), but often she seemed to be pushing, especially in act two. The entire show, in its Broadway reconstruction, has gotten much worse than it was in England – more forced. In the Manchester run caught on film, the orchestrations have been slowed down, which lent a listless quality to the show; in New York they’ve been speeded up nervously. And the actors, especially Michele and Ramin Karimloo as Nicky, have been directed to plow through the book scenes, so the beats are blurred. That’s a shame, especially since Harvey Fierstein, who retooled the book for the Meunier, has built up Nick’s role. (He gets a solo, “Temporary Situation,” which composer Jule Styne and Merrill dropped it during out-of-town tryouts.)  At least at the performance I saw, Karimloo, who was rather flat in the first act, got better as Michele got worse: he brought a touching melancholy to his scenes in the second half.

The production is a little more lavish than it was in England, but except for Susan Hilferty’s costumes – once the show moves from Fanny’s novice days to her collaboration with Ziegfeld – it isn’t especially attractive. As Ziegfeld, Paolo Montalban shouts most of his lines, and as Fanny’s wise and wisecracking mother Rose, the irrepressible Tovah Feldshuh (and that’s not meant as a compliment) gives the impression of smashing at her laughs with a baseball bat. Fortunately, the knockout tapper Jared Grimes plays Eddie Ryan, Keeney’s dance director, who goes behind his boss’s back to give her a chance and then rises in the world with her when she moves on to the Follies. I loved Grimes in Cotton Club Parade and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, both at Encores!, and his dancing, though there isn’t enough of it, and his breezy presence give this Funny Girl a lift. And two more dancers, both uncredited,  give the second-act “Rat-a-Tat-Tat” revue number a rousing send-off, though the “Private Schwartz from Rockaway” section, with Fanny as a Yiddish doughboy, isn’t quite in Michele’s wheelhouse. It wasn’t in Smith’s either; I suspect no one has made it work since Streisand. (And then it was cut from the movie, replaced by a parody of Swan Lake that was probably inspired by Brice’s novelty “Becky Is Back in the Ballet.”) Fortunately that can’t be said for the role of Fanny. I wish that Lea Michele’s swing at it were more consistent.

"Dancin' Man" from Dancin'. (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

Bob Fosse’s Dancin’ was a mixed bag in 1978, but it was essential theatergoing for those of us who were confident that he was the most wondrous show-biz choreographer of our lifetime. It seemed almost too good to be true: two and a half hours of nothing but dance staged by Fosse. The revival, reconstructed by Wayne Cilento – who performed in the original production – has added extraneous narration, read by cast members who are mostly dancers and not actors, and excessive flash in the lighting (designed by David Grill) and video (Finn Ross). Some of the pieces from 1978 have been excised, and some excerpts from Fosse’s final show, Big Deal, have been added. (Restored, to be exact:  Fosse originally planned to include “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” but cut it, and then put it into Big Deal.) My forty-five-year-old memory isn’t sharp enough to comment on what’s missing except for one dance I remember fondly, “Fourteen Feet,” in which seven dancers showed how imaginatively they could move their bodies when their feet were sunk in shoes stuck to the stage floor. The highlight of the evening, as it was in 1978, is a jubilant group romp to Benny Goodman’s irreplaceable “Sing, Sing, Sing.” You can see an abridged version of “Sing, Sing, Sing” performed by the original cast at the Tony Awards on YouTube, as well as the entire, exuberant “Dancin’ Man” number, but I’d opt to see them live: “Dancin’ Man” rings down the first-act curtain in undiluted triumph. Another highlight is a pas de trois inspired by boxing moves and performed by Yeman Brown, Jōvan Dansberry and Manuel Herrera. But eighteen of the dancers showcased in the production are extraordinarily gifted performers at the top of their game.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.  

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