Lea Michele finally gets a chance to play “Funny Girl,” and she kills it, according to the critics
The ‘Glee’ star successfully assumes the part of Fanny Brice in the Broadway musical revival where Beanie Feldstein struggled to fit in.
It’s uncommon for a big Broadway production to find its ideal lead actor six months after performances started and the show debuted to lukewarm reviews. On the other hand, it’s unusual for a celebrity with Lea Michele’s credentials to accept the role of a replacement lead. But Michele’s steadfast willingness to put her abilities to the test in the role of Fanny Brice, which she obviously views as the part of a lifetime, places her in uncharted terrain.
First, let’s get the big news out of the way: Michele is terrific in Funny Girl. While Beanie Feldstein, her predecessor in the Broadway revival, was a charmingly alluring figure who leaned heavily on the comedy, she was out of her element with songs that required fluid modulation and commanding strength due to her light, agreeable singing voice.
Even more importantly, Feldstein’s charming portrayal of Brice in the fictitious 1964 bio-musical lacked the ambition for both professional success and personal fulfilment that defined the early 20th century theatrical star’s turbulent marriage to compulsive gambler Nick Arnstein.
Both voice skill and hunger are there in Michele. Since her first season on Glee as Rachel Berry, the actress has been informally auditioning for the part, making apparent her character’s fixation with both the role and the original star it was based on on Broadway and in the 1968 film adaptation, Barbra Streisand.
The show’s songs “People,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “I’m the Greatest Star,” “Who Are You Now?” and the duet “You Are Woman, I Am Man” were all performed by Rachel at various points over the course of five seasons. She also sang the Brice signature song “My Man,” which was added for Streisand as the closing number in the William Wyler film, as well as other songs from the show.
On the 2010 Tony Awards programme, Michele also gave a performance of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” practically pleading with the industry crowd in the Radio City Music Hall audience to cast her in the part.
Early plans for Michele to star in a Ryan Murphy-produced revival fell through, and she appeared to miss her chance to take on Fanny Brice. The moment Michele gained notoriety on social media for allegedly bullying fellow cast members on Glee and other shows, the ship really did seem to have left the dock.
Sincere appreciation for being back on Broadway for the first time in 14 years, and in her dream role no less, seems to be a faint undertone of regret in Michele’s compelling performance. Humility is not a must for playing the lead in Funny Girl. This task is a project for professional rehabilitation as well as the realisation of a long-held dream. However, if the jubilant cheers of fans that accompany every loud brassy belt and key change in her songs are any indication, those allegations of inappropriate behaviour have been forgotten.
The star’s voice has never sounded better after reuniting with Michael Mayer, who directed Michele in her breakout role in Spring Awakening. Her vocals have a new maturity and richness that give Jule Styne’s melodies a liquid velvet coating and even give Bob Merrill’s words, which are rarely more than passable, the appearance of depth.
Though comedy is not Michele’s strong suit, she enthusiastically embraces Brice’s jokes. That’s notable for her eagerness that verges on desperation as she grabs hold of her precarious foothold in a field where chorus girls are expected to be willowy beauties and for her sheer audacity as she clowns her way out of the chorus to become a Ziegfeld Follies star who creates her own material. Her mocking answer to Nick’s slick wooing in a Baltimore restaurant also garners laughter.
Ramin Karimloo as Nick, Jared Grimes as Fanny’s friend and choreographer Eddie Ryan, and Peter Francis James as Florenz Ziegfeld are significant cast members who perfectly blend in with the replacement star. In addition, fellow newbie Tovah Feldshuh is delightful in the role of Fanny’s feisty mother, a Brooklyn saloonkeeper with impeccable judgement about life, love, and show business, taking over for Jane Lynch.
Feldshuh is a little powerhouse in the part, cracking smart and putting her gossipy Henry Street friends to sleep with only a few scathing words. When she sings, “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?” in reference to Fanny’s comic timing, it doesn’t seem like a frivolous boast. She is, nevertheless, also a rock for her daughter, providing unwavering encouragement even when others are sceptical.
Sadly, none of this can elevate Funny Girl to a superior level. Even with dubious modifications by Harvey Fierstein, Isobel Lennart’s ponderous book guarantees that the musical will always be a subpar vehicle that can only be saved with a first-rate performer. By omitting pointless numbers and shaping the plot to highlight Streisand’s abilities, Wyler’s film cleverly minimised the flaws in the source text.
The musical drags on stage for more than two and a half hours, with scene after scene begging to be cut, and at least a few songs that might be deleted without suffering too much. Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat, a military production piece in the second act, ends with twin cannons spraying confetti over the crowd, but that doesn’t make it any less of a failure.
Any production of Funny Girl currently suffers from the cliches of a plot that spends far too much time and energy on dismal Nick and his emotions of emasculation in a marriage where he is out-earned by his wife and left to flounder in his own murky business attempts.
It is a testament to Michele that she is able to find the pathos in the inevitable breakup of that relationship, clinging to the idea of unbreakable love in an exquisitely sung rendition of “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” and then picking up the pieces with a bittersweet sense of resolve in an emotional reprise of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
Maybe it’s because Michele watched this role, which she so desperately wanted, seem to slip through her fingers for years, causing her despair and aggravation. However, she is as captivating a protagonist as any revival of this dated programme could hope for because to her intense enthusiasm, unwavering determination, and inherent talent. To paraphrase what Fanny says to the mirror in her dressing room: “Hello, gorgeous,” indeed.