“Funny Girl,” on stage now at Riverside Theatre in Vero Beach, has the professional theater’s insistence on good music well sung, fun and frothy production numbers, and a handsome look, especially in the costume design. However, it lacks the “pop” we have come to expect from Riverside.
Written by Isobel Lennart with music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill, “Funny Girl” is the story of legendary comedienne Fanny Brice, who made her mark on Broadway in Florenz Ziegfeld Follies. In the story, we see her as a woman who doesn’t think much of her looks but has deep confidence in her comic talent. Through her own gumption, she’s hired by Ziegfeld and marries gambler Nick Arnstein.
The legend behind “Funny Girl” is, to say the least, “checkered.” After years of bouncing between producers, writers, directors and performers, composer Styne eventually had his way and opened the show in March, 1964, with Barbra Streisand in the role of Fanny Brice. It propelled Streisand’s meteoric fame. She went on to star in the show in London in 1966 and eventually the 1968 movie.
That creates a problem, writes James Brennan, who has directed Riverside Theatre’s production of “Funny Girl.” He suggests that the show is rarely done because of Streisand. “You fall short of expectations,” he writes in a Q & A for Riverside.
But here, actress Courtney Balan delivers such a vocally and comically strong portrayal of Fanny Brice that you forget all about Streisand. Well, almost. There is that little song “People.” Oh yeah. And that other song, “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
No matter. As music directed by Ken Clifton, Balan endears the audience and leaves us all gasping in wonder at how she can keep belting out song after song after song…and comic bit after comic bit. She is, in a word, terrific.
And so is Jane Strauss, who is hysterically nuanced as Mrs. Strakosh, the Brice family’s nosy neighbor.
And, although she constantly pronounces it “Ziegfield,” Susan Cella, Fanny’s worried mother, impresses by doing the splits…and then gets back up! Brian Ogilvie is sweet as Eddie Ryan, the young man who has a crush on Fanny.
James Sasser is pleasant voiced as Nick Arnstein, but his portrayal is of a man who appears aloof. We never get any chemistry between Nick and Fanny. That, of course, undercuts any emotion the audience might feel when things don’t work out between them.
The show has some big, entertaining numbers. There’s the slapstick “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” in which a chorus line of brides ends with Fanny Brice dressed to look like a very pregnant bride. “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” is exceptional with Brennan’s intricate show-off choreography.
Robert Kovach’s scenic design is at its best with the Henry Street scenes. But the use of a small chandelier in a supposedly big production number diminishes the grandness of Ziegfeld. Yes, a small detail, but one that screams loudly.
The real production value stand-out is Kurt Alger’s costume design. His use of color and pattern paint a vivid look to the characters.
But the lack of personal chemistry resonates. Indeed, toward the end of the show, when Fanny Brice smiles at her soon to be ex-husband and says something like “We were just bad casting, but we had some good times.”
For sure, there are good times, just not enough.
Side O’ Grits: “Funny Girl” runs through Jan. 27 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Dr., Vero Beach. Curtain is 8 p.m. Jan. 25, 26; 2 p.m. Jan 20, 23, 24, 26 and 27; and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23 and 24. $36 to $70. Call 772-231-6990 or visit www.riversidetheatre.com.