Playing the part of a marquee idol is daunting on its own. Playing one made famous by Barbra Streisand may seem like a fool’s errand, doubtless one reason “Funny Girl” hasn’t been on Broadway since its original staging in 1964. But it’s no exaggeration to say that a star is being born at the August Wilson Theatre, where Beanie Feldstein toplines a winning revival with her own distinct cache of wit and charisma.
Comparisons to Streisand are inevitable — this revival’s opening night even aligns with the Brooklyn grande dame’s 80th birthday. But the benchmarks she set, first on stage and then with her Oscar-winning performance in the 1968 film, are impossible to match. It would be just as well to let the elephant in the room with the world-famous schnoz sit gracefully to one side. Because Feldstein doesn’t allow herself to be overshadowed by the role’s legacy, but rather pratfalls into the spotlight to make it her own.
“Funny Girl” is set around a century ago, so it does not also have to contend with the memory of its source material. Though based on a true affair, the story of Fanny Brice’s rise to fame and rocky romance with Nicky Arnstein is a showbiz tale as old as time. (Part of the allure of Streisand’s casting was that Fanny’s trajectory so closely mirrored her own.) The plot, in other words, isn’t the gag. “Funny Girl” is all about the star.
Fanny is in the business of persuading people that she’s something special. “They trust you,” Nick (a relentlessly appealing Ramin Karimloo) tells Fanny when they first meet backstage, likening her and the audience to old friends. Feldstein, best known for playing meme-ably earnest teens in “Lady Bird” and “Booksmart,” has been on Broadway only once before, in “Hello, Dolly!” opposite Bette Midler. But she’s confident and convincing, leaving little room for doubt from the start.
Feldstein is a dynamite comedian, nimble and curious and varied in her strategies to get the laugh. She’s as adept with the overeager antics of a young upstart as with the throwaway deadpan of an ascendant diva. Her Fanny is goofy, with an ease and softness that propels her into others’ good graces with ease. Expecting Feldstein to sing it like Streisand would be a trap. (She doesn’t; nobody can.) But her voice has the power, beauty, and bravado to command time-honored vehicles from composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill, like “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
Karimloo’s Nick is suave in a guileless way that makes it tempting to believe Fanny may have actually found a good guy. The red flags are all there (a gambler who breeds race horses, what could go wrong?), but recede beneath the dreamy haze of Karimloo’s charm. The giddiness of their courtship lends the first act an airy momentum, and the fun that he and Feldstein seem to be having is contagious. Jane Lynch is likewise having a gas as Fanny’s wry stage mom, and Jared Grimes delights with furious footwork as Fanny’s doting dance coach (tap choreography is by Ayodele Casel).
The book revision from Harvey Fierstein (to the original by Isobel Lennart) adds dimension and goes for more direct yuks, with a Fanny who’s more headstrong but still hopelessly romantic. Despite updated language, “Funny Girl” remains an old-fashioned doomed love story, and its course a predictable one. The realities of marriage — money trouble, a kid at home, career tug-of-war — downshift the second act out of the high-octane comedy that drives the first. That’s life, but darned if it doesn’t feel like a drag after all that’s come before.
The production, from director Michael Mayer, flows smoothly between scenes on a versatile set from designer David Zinn, a semicircular tower that opens to reveal shifting interiors (a dressing room, a train station, a luxe hotel suite). Though the facade looks curiously like the red-brick fortress of a Brooklyn Rapunzel, it’s a creative departure from boxy cityscapes. And despite an unevenness to the overall aesthetic (you’d be hard-pressed to pin the year as 1924 and prior), the design is punctuated with satisfying visual pops, including a flashy bare-bulb proscenium (lighting is by Kevin Adams) and elaborate showgirl costumes from Susan Hilferty.
“Funny Girl” is still more of a star vehicle than it is timeless or transporting. Its notions about women and men betray the rust of half a century, particularly its premise (she’s funny, but couldn’t possibly be pretty without fitting in). There are constraints to any material so snugly tied to gendered conventions, and their narrow conceit of how happily ever after is supposed to look. But with Feldstein firmly steering the ship, “Funny Girl” is a breezy and joyful ride.
“Funny Girl” opened at the August Wilson Theatre on April 24, 2022.
Review Photo: Matthew Murphy
Creative: Book by Isobel Lennart; Revised Book by Harvey Fierstein; Music by Jule Styne; Lyrics by Bob Merrill; Music orchestrated by Chris Walker; Vocal arrangements by Alan Williams; Dance arrangements by Alan Williams; Incidental music arrangements by Alan Williams; Additional Arrangements: Carmel Dean and David Dabbon; Directed by Michael Mayer; Choreographed by Ellenore Scott; Tap Choreography by Ayodele Casel; Scenic Design by David Zinn; Costume Design by Susan Hilferty; Lighting Design by Kevin Adams; Sound Design by Brian Ronan.
Producers: Sonia Friedman Productions, Scott Landis, David Babani, Roy Furman, No Guarantees, Adam Blanshay Productions, Daryl Roth, Stephanie P. McClelland, Lang Entertainment Group, Playing Field, Gavin Kalin, Charles & Nicolas Talar, Fakston Productions, Sanford Robertson, Craig Balsam, Cue to Cue Productions, LeonoffFedermanWolofsky Productions, Judith Ann Abrams/Peter May, Hunter Arnold, Creative Partners Productions, Elizabeth Armstrong, Jane Bergère, Jean Doumanian, Larry Magid, Rosalind Productions, Inc., Iris Smith, Kevin & Trudy Sullivan, Julie Boardman/Kate Cannova, Heni Koenigsberg/Michelle Riley, Mira Road Productions, In Fine Company, Elie Landau, Brian Moreland, Henry R. Muñoz III and Kyle Ferari Muñoz and MaggioAbrams/Brian & Dayna Lee.
Cast: Beanie Feldstein, Jared Grimes, Ramin Karimloo, Jane Lynch, Ephie Aardema, Debra Cardona, Toni diBuono, Peter Francis James, Martin Moran, Amber Ardolino, Kurt Csolak, Leslie Donna Flesner, Afra Hines, Masumi Iwai, Aliah James, Stephen Mark Lukas, John Manzari, Katie Mitchell, Justin Prescott, Mariah Reives and Leslie Blake Walker.