Take two, and not a moment too soon. Lea Michele steps into one of Broadway’s most iconic roles, which in her mind — or at least the mind of Rachel Berry, the character she played in TV’s “Glee” — she was destined to play. And dammit, she’s right.
Not that suddenly this otherwise uninspired and underproduced revival of “Funny Girl” is transformed into a revelatory classic. Instead Michele gives it what the revival previously lacked: charisma, astonishing vocals and assuredness — not to mention a killer fan base. It also had a backstage narrative that added to the drama following original star Beanie Feldstein’s departure, culminating in a casting coup that many felt should have been Michele’s in the first place.
But better late than never for this “Funny Girl 2.0.” It’s a bit of a re-discovery of Michele as well.
Older since her “Glee” days — she’s 36 now — the actor brings a welcome maturity to the role of Fanny Brice, the part that launched Barbra Streisand into the stratosphere. Michele’s maturity especially helps in the show’s second half, when the actor is able to lend this Fanny an emotional depth that is lacking in the script.
Her well-seasoned acting chops (she’s been on Broadway stages since she was 9) allows her to calibrate Fanny’s mix of raw ambition, neediness, nerve and vulnerability. Some of Fanny’s insecurities, beneath her bravado, are rooted in her issues of class, education and looks. Michele is clearly a beauty that a period wig can’t hide, but we nevertheless sign on to the delusion.
But is this “Funny Girl” funny? While Michele doesn’t transcend the schtick and corn of the script, she makes the most of what she has been given with playfulness and without pandering.
What serves the show most is her singing, making a triumph of the first act musical trifecta of “I’m the Greatest Star,” “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” with plenty of power notes left over to elevate the rest of the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score. Though hardly re-conceiving the songs, Michele is able to distance herself enough from Streisand’s phrasing to take ownership — or at least to become a savvy caretaker — of the material.
Happily no doubt for the producers, Michele also brings legions of fans, many of whom leapt to their feet during individual numbers at a recent performance. If that enthusiasm continues, it will give this revival a shot of adrenaline, not to mention a box office boost. The jolt extends to the entire cast, which seems brighter, crisper and more energized.
Lending solid support is another welcome addition, Tovah Feldshuh, who infuses the role of Fanny’s mother with authenticity, humor and kick. Ramin Karimloo as Fanny’s buff gambler husband Nicky Arnstein remains smooth, sexy and luminous as a satin bedsheet. There’s also musical chemistry with Michele, and their singing, especially in the poignant duet “Who Are You Now,” is sublime.
Jared Grimes still dazzles in the showcase tap numbers that earned him a Tony nomination. Martin Moran and Peter Francis James continue their solid turns as theater owner Tom Keeney and Ziegfeld, and Toni DiBuono and Debra Cardona as Mrs. Brice’s poker buddies are evergreen delights.
But even Michele, Karimloo and a heightened cast can’t save the deflated second act, which still creaks with silent-film melodrama. Harvey Fierstein’s light revision of the script doesn’t solve fundamental issues with the largely fictional bio of Brice, who starred in multiple entertainment mediums during the first half of the 20th century, but is now largely remembered through this musical.
The production still looks ill-conceived, with a dour set and outfits and merely-okay choreography. But a confetti canon? Proscenium lights meant to trigger audience responses? Really?
What transcends it all is the presence of a Fanny who can deliver the musical, emotional and comedic goods — and with a backstage story to boot. With Streisand, it was that of a star being born. With Michelle, it’s one being reborn.
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