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It’s not often that a major Broadway musical lands its ideal lead six months after beginning performances and opening to mixed reviews. Then again, it’s an anomaly that a star with the credentials of Lea Michele would agree to step in as a replacement lead. But Michele’s tenacious determination to test her skills as Fanny Brice, a role she clearly considers the part of a lifetime, puts her in uncommon territory.
To get the headline news out of the way first, Michele gives a sensational performance in Funny Girl. While her predecessor in the Broadway revival, Beanie Feldstein, was a sweetly captivating presence who leaned hard on the comedy, her light, pleasant singing voice put her out of her depth with numbers that called for supple modulation and commanding power.
Perhaps even more crucially, the hunger that defines early 20th century stage star Brice in the fictionalized 1964 bio-musical — for both professional success and personal fulfillment in a rocky marriage to inveterate gambler Nick Arnstein — was barely there in Feldstein’s winsome characterization.
Michele has the vocal talent and the hunger. The actress has been unofficially auditioning for the role since her first season as Rachel Berry on Glee, making clear her character’s obsession both with the role and with the original star it was shaped around on Broadway and in the 1968 screen version, Barbra Streisand.
At various points over five seasons, Rachel performed a string of numbers from the show, “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,” as well as the Brice trademark song “My Man,” which was added for Streisand as a closing number in the William Wyler film.
Michele also performed “Don’t Rain on My Parade” on the 2010 Tony Awards telecast, all but begging the industry crowd in the Radio City Music Hall audience to put her on a Broadway stage in the role.
Early talks for Michele to lead a Ryan Murphy-produced revival fell apart, and her chance to tackle Fanny Brice seemed to pass her by. The ship really appeared to have sailed once Michele became a social media pariah after accounts of her alleged bullying of castmates on Glee and other productions began circulating.
Humility is not a requirement when playing the lead in Funny Girl, but to this critic, there seems a quiet undertone of contrition in Michele’s riveting performance — of sincere gratitude to be back on Broadway for the first time in 14 years, and in her dream role no less. This part is not just the fulfillment of a longtime desire, it’s also a career rehabilitation project. Though if the ecstatic squeals of fans that greet every big brassy belt and key change in her songs are any indication, those rumors of bad behavior have been forgiven and forgotten.
Reuniting with Michael Mayer, who directed Michele in her breakthrough role in Spring Awakening, the star’s voice has never sounded better. There’s a new maturity and texture in her vocals, coating Jule Styne’s melodies in liquid velvet and even bringing a semblance of depth to Bob Merrill’s lyrics, which are seldom more than serviceable.
Comedy is not Michele’s natural domain, but she throws herself into Brice’s shtick with gusto. That’s notable in her eagerness bordering on desperation as she seizes her tenuous foothold in an industry that expects chorus girls to be willowy beauties, and in her sheer chutzpah as she clowns her way out of the chorus to become a Ziegfeld Follies star who shapes her own material. And she gets laughs in her self-deprecating response to Nick’s suave seduction in a Baltimore restaurant.
Key holdovers in the cast — Ramin Karimloo as Nick, Jared Grimes as Fanny’s choreographer buddy Eddie Ryan, and Peter Francis James as Florenz Ziegfeld — fit seamlessly with the replacement star. And fellow newcomer Tovah Feldshuh is a delight, replacing Jane Lynch as Fanny’s feisty mother, a Brooklyn saloonkeeper with infallible instincts about life and love and showbiz.
Feldshuh is a tiny dynamo in the role, cracking wise and silencing her gossipy Henry Street cronies with just an acerbic word or two. It doesn’t seem an idle boast when she sings of Fanny’s comic timing, “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?” But she’s also a rock to her daughter, offering unstinting support even when others doubt her.
None of this, alas, can make Funny Girl a great show. Isobel Lennart’s plodding book, even with questionable revisions by Harvey Fierstein, ensures that the musical will always be a second-rate vehicle that’s salvageable only with a first-rate star. Wyler’s movie shrewdly minimized the material’s weaknesses by excising disposable numbers and contouring the story to showcase Streisand’s talents.
On stage, the musical ambles along over two-and-a-half hours with scene after scene that begs to be trimmed, and at least a few songs that could be dropped with no significant loss. Having twin cannons fire confetti over the audience at the end of the second-act military production number, “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” doesn’t make it less of a dud.
Any production of Funny Girl now suffers from the clichés of a story that gives too much time and attention to dreary Nick and his feelings of emasculation in a marriage where he’s out-earned by his wife and left to flounder in his own shady business ventures.
It’s a credit to Michele that she finds the pathos in the inevitable end of that union, clinging tight to the illusion of unbreakable love in an exquisitely sung “The Music That Makes Me Dance” and then picking up the pieces with bittersweet resolve in an affecting reprise of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
Maybe it’s the years of disappointment and frustration Michele experienced while wanting this role so badly and watching it appear to slip through her fingers. But her fierce passion for it, her relentless drive, coupled with her natural charisma and talent, make her as dazzling a lead as any revival of this creaky show could hope to find. To borrow the words Fanny speaks to her dressing room mirror: “Hello, gorgeous,” indeed.
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