Beanie Feldstein stars as the comic Fanny Brice in the show’s return after almost 60 years.
It must be a plot. Why else would it have taken nearly 60 years for “Funny Girl,” the hit 1964 musical about the comic Fanny Brice, to be revived on Broadway, when most Golden Age shows with even half a wit left in them — let alone such a fabulous score — have been revived unto exhaustion?
And why does the mild version that finally made it, in a production starring Beanie Feldstein that opened Sunday at the August Wilson Theater, seem likely to prolong rather than break the spell?
That I can answer in two words: Barbra Streisman.
Or so Jerome Robbins, who “supervised” the original production, misspelled the name of an exciting young singer, then about 20, on a list of possible Fannys he drew up around 1962. That list, which also included such established stars as Judy Holliday, Eydie Gormé and Tammy Grimes, put Streisand, as she was properly but barely known, in third place.
She was first on Jule Styne’s list, though. The show’s composer deliberately wrote the “toughest score” he could — rangy and histrionic in places, delicate and restrained in others — so “only Barbra could sing it.”
And so it has been. As the show developed, coiling itself around Streisand’s offbeat, aggressive, once-in-a-lifetime talent — not to mention her Brice-like nose, which shows up repeatedly in Bob Merrill’s lyrics — the odds of a truly successful successor diminished. And without a stupendous Fanny to thrill and distract, the musical’s manifold faults become painfully evident.
To rip the bandage off quickly: Feldstein is not stupendous. She’s good. She’s funny enough in places, and immensely likable always, as was already evident from her performances in the movies “Booksmart” and “Lady Bird” and, on Broadway, in “Hello, Dolly!” You root for her to raise the roof, but she only bumps against it a little. Her voice, though solid and sweet and clear, is not well suited to the music, and you feel her working as hard as she can to power through the gap. But working hard at what should be naturally extraordinary is not in Fanny’s DNA.
Still, you can’t blame Feldstein for the show’s problems; that would be like blaming the clown for the elephants. The main elephant is the book, written by Isobel Lennart and fiddled with for this production by Harvey Fierstein, to no avail. Tracing Brice’s rise from gawky waif to Ziegfeld star between 1910 and 1927, along with the corresponding decline of her romance with the “gorgeous” gambler Nick Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo), it bites off more than it can chew and then, at least in Michael Mayer’s production, repeatedly refuses to chew it.
The highlights-only approach is a problem in most biographical musicals, exacerbated in “Funny Girl” by its unusually high quotient of fictionalization. Brice’s family was well off, not poor, but the rags-to-riches arc made the plot more appealing. When she met Arnstein, she was no innocent, as suggested by songs like “You Are Woman, I Am Man”; she’d been married already — and he still was. The famous Ziegfeld number in which she stuffs her wedding gown to appear pregnant (“His Love Makes Me Beautiful”) never happened, and if it had, she’d have been fired.
But those distortions at least make a good story. The bigger distortions — perhaps necessitated by the fact that Ray Stark, who produced the original, was Brice’s son-in-law — avoid one. Arnstein did not get involved in illegal activities because he hated being supported by Fanny; he was a crook and a jailbird who had been gladly sponging off her from the beginning. Yet Brice, knowing all that, still adored him, which makes a far more interesting tale than the bowdlerized one the show offers, of a duped woman finally and regretfully seeing the light.
That Arnstein wasn’t remotely gorgeous, and Karimloo totally is, we can allow. Karimloo also sings beautifully and, to the extent the new book tries to beef up the role, he’s got the beef to do it.
Unfortunately the effort is counterproductive. The song “Temporary Arrangement,” in which Nick expresses his mounting fury, has been retrieved from the Styne-Merrill trunk, where it was stashed after one performance in 1964 and should have remained; its intensity comes out of nowhere and rips at the show’s thin fabric. A bit later, Nick gets a version of the title song, which though shot for the 1968 film, starring Streisand and Omar Sharif, was cut for good cause.
More happily, when Feldstein sings her own version of “Funny Girl” near the end of the show, it’s simple and touching — not overstretched like her merely loud renditions of the big three hits: “I’m the Greatest Star,” “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
Perhaps that’s because she’s finally just sitting down with no one else onstage. (Most of the musical staging, by Ellenore Scott, is hectic.) But if Fierstein’s stabs at strengthening the secondary characters pull focus from the central one, they do help the production in small ways. As Fanny’s mother, the naturally eccentric comic Jane Lynch brings us closest to the Brice spirit, suggesting in “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?” that zany ambition is a heritable trait. And though Jared Grimes, as Fanny’s pal Eddie Ryan, is somewhat wasted in that song, he earlier makes a fine cameo of the production’s most notable dance, a stunning tap sequence choreographed by Ayodele Casel.
That the sequence has little to do with the story is not a deal-breaker; in “Funny Girl,” it may even be an advantage. Nor are Fierstein’s anachronisms and vulgar jokes about sex with chorines and men in trench coats catastrophic. This is not a unified work like Styne’s 1959 hit, “Gypsy,” arguably just as fictional in its portrait of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee yet one of the indisputably great musicals. In that show, no song was allowed to serve less than double duty; everything pointed back to the plot. “Funny Girl” reaches for the same complexity but most often contents itself, except in its best songs, with mere entertainment.
If the revival actually provided enough of that, it might prove irresistible. But Mayer’s staging, which at times seems to aim for the ghostly nostalgia of “Follies,” feels lumbering and underfunded, with cheap-looking sets (by David Zinn), a cast of 22 in place of the original 43 and wan new orchestrations for 14 players, based on the glorious originals by Ralph Burns for 25. (You’re going to sell me “People” with two violins?) Only the aptly gaudy costumes by Susan Hilferty suggest the Ziegfeldian overabundance that shows like “Funny Girl” were designed to purvey.
This could all have been predicted; over the years, many revivals have been attempted and defeated because the thing a revival is trying to revive is not to be found in the property itself. It’s in the personality of the necessary star: someone not nice but inevitable, not diligent but explosive, not well-rounded but weird. They don’t grow them that way much, anymore, nor write new material for them. Paging Ms. Streisman!
At the August Wilson Theater, Manhattan; funnygirlonbroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes.