(Jesse Green’s article appeared in The New York Times, 9/29/22; via Pam Green; Photo: Yes, Lea Michele (with Ramin Karimloo) lights up like a light as the new Fanny Brice on Broadway. Credit…Matthew Murphy.)
Though it can be a great vehicle, “Funny Girl” has rarely been a great ride. Even its first-rate Jule Styne songs — “I’m the Greatest Star,” “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” among them — are problematic. Not only are the lyrics, by Bob Merrill, often inane (“I’ll light up like a light”?) but the challenge of the vocal writing that made Barbra Streisand a star in 1964 makes casting anyone else now a nightmare.
And let’s not get started on the book, by Isobel Lennart, which in telling the (mostly fictional) story of the early-20th-century comic Fanny Brice, and her disastrous love affair with the gambler Nick Arnstein, seems to have been assembled from a warehouse of used musical-comedy parts. They do not work well together, however well they work individually.
The revival that opened in April at the August Wilson Theater — its first on Broadway — only made matters worse. Harvey Fierstein’s meddling with the confusing book confused it further by giving Nick (Ramin Karimloo) more to do; nobody cares what Nick does. And Fanny, whom we do care about, was just too much of a reach for Beanie Feldstein, offering a pleasant performance in a role that shouldn’t be. “Without a stupendous Fanny to thrill and distract,” I wrote at the time, “the musical’s manifold faults become painfully evident.”
Lea Michele, who took over the role on Sept. 6, turns out to be that stupendous Fanny. Yes, she even lights up like a light. Both vulnerable and invulnerable, kooky and ardent, she makes the show worth watching again.
She can’t make it good, though. Michael Mayer’s production is still garish and pushy, pandering for audience overreaction. A confetti cannon tries to put an exclamation point on a dud dance. Many of the minor players overplay. The lighting by Kevin Adams would make a rat clap, and the unusually ugly set by David Zinn seems weaponized against intimacy. It looks like a missile silo.
But at least “Funny Girl” now has a missile: a performer who from her first words (“Hello, Gorgeous”) shoots straight to her target and hits it.
It has been a tortuous path to this obviously right and seemingly predestined casting, with decades of false starts involving Lauren Ambrose, Debbie Gibson, Sheridan Smith and others. Feldstein was just another in the long list of misfires; after she ditched the show in a cloud of apparent acrimony — a cloud everyone denied — her standby, Julie Benko, took over.
Benko, who is still the Thursday night Fanny, sings the role very well, so you never worry, as you did with Feldstein, that she might not make it through the songs. Then too, Benko gets closer to the dark heart of the comedy, backfilling its shtick with something like anger. Still, good as she is, her voice and the rest of her performance don’t yet match; she even has a different accent when acting the role than when singing it.