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Funny Girl
Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Bob Merrill
Book by Isobel Lennart
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Choreographed by Zachary Stefaniak
Stray Dog Theatre
July 24, 2014

Lindsey Jones (center) and Ensemble Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Lindsey Jones (center) and Ensemble
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Funny Girl is one of those unusual shows in that it’s about a real person who was very famous at one time, although its first association in most people’s minds is with the actress who originated the role, in the Broadway production and later in the hugely popular film.  For the general public, this show is about Barbra Streisand much more than it is about Fanny Brice.  The difficulty with that situation is that there’s only one Barbra Streisand, and any actress who plays this role with Streisand too much in mind is inevitably going to look like a pale imitation. The best thing that theatre companies can do, then, when producing this show is try to forget about Streisand entirely and put the focus on the person whose story the show tells–early 20th Century singer and comedienne Brice. With the right performer in the role, playing Brice rather than Streisand-as-Brice, this can be a highly successful show, and Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production at least has that one point in its favor. With Lindsey Jones in a strong-voiced, sympathetic, very un-Streisand characterization, this show manages to entertain despite its noticeable flaws.

Another issue with productions of this play is that the film is much more well-known than the stage version, and there were many modifications made for the movie including adding several songs that Brice actually sang.  The show’s music is all original, and the story is told in more of a traditional musical format and with more subplots than the film, in which the focus was turned even more toward Fanny’s relationship with gambler Nick Arnstein (played here by Jeffrey M. Wright).  That plot is still a major feature of this production as it’s told in flashback format, as the older, now-famous Fanny Brice remembers her rise to fame and the people who helped her achieve that fame, such as her mother (Laura Kyro) and her family friends from her old New York neighborhood and her early days on the Vaudeville circuit, including dancer Eddie Ryan (Zach Wachter).  Eventually, Fanny is noticed by famous Broadway produced Florenz Ziegfeld (Michael Monsey), who signs her to star in his famous Follies.  As Fanny becomes increasingly well-known, her romance with Arnstein develops gradually, eventually leading to much tension and drama as these two very different people try to maintain a relationship in the midst of the challenges of Fanny’s career and Nick’s own personal ambitions.  It’s a somewhat disjointed script, as the story keeps jumping back to the “old neighborhood” when it probably should keep the focus on Fanny, although there are some entertaining moments with Mrs. Brice and her poker playing friends.

Despite some problematic casting in other roles in this production, Jones herself shines as Fanny Brice.  Although she doesn’t physically resemble the real Brice very much (but then, neither did Streisand), she actually sings more in the style of Brice than Streisand did, and her voice is strong and clear.  It’s not a perfect performance, in that Jones does seem to take a little while to find her energy, but when she does find it (about halfway through Act 1), she owns the stage.  On iconic songs like “Don’t Rain On My Parade” and, especially, “People”, Jones sings with heart and personality.  She displays a good sense of comic timing in the more humorous numbers, as well, and leads production numbers like “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” and “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” with authority despite the lack of cohesion in the ensemble that supports her. She portrays Fanny’s maturing and growth in confidence as a performer well, as well as her frustration with her increasing personal difficulties. Jones is really the star of this production, with some excellent support by Kyro as Mrs. Brice, who shows a great deal of stage presence, comic ability and a strong voice, and especially by Wachter as Eddie, who commands the stage with charm and excellent tap-dancing skills. In fact, Wachter’s solo version of “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”–which is supposed to be a rehearsal–is actually more captivating than the “finished” ensemble performance that immediately follows it. These three performers, along with several of the female ensemble members, give the most engaging performances in the show, but the most of the male ensemble is noticeably weaker, and Monsey as Ziegfeld lacks the engaging personality and authority that the role requires while sporting a distractingly obvious fake mustache.  Wright, as Arnstein, gives a fine performance for the most part, although he doesn’t quite project the right air of suave confidence early on, and his chemistry with Jones is awkward at best, with the one exception of their very last scene together, which is poignant and  believable but also not really enough to make up for their earlier lack of connection.

Another uneven aspect of this production is its visual presentation and its pacing, particularly in the production numbers.  The grand Ziegfeld Follies staircase is there, and it looks great, as does most of Robert J. Lippert’s set, which fits well on the Tower Grove Abbey stage, although the costumes, designed by director Gary F. Bell, are hit-or-miss in terms of period detail, with some of the female ensemble members rehearsing in outfits that look much more of this century than of the last.  The Follies sequences, despite the nice-looking set, simply are not grand enough, and the ensemble lacks cohesion  in the production numbers until Jones shows up and brings up the energy level.  There are also some issues with volume, in that there were moments of dialogue that were difficult to hear.  Stray Dog’s productions have impressed me a great deal in the past, especially their spectacular Cabaret earlier this year, but this one is surprising in its inconsistency, even there there is a lot to enjoy about the production as well and I hope the ensemble’s energy and presence will improve  as the show continues to run.

Ultimately, this show is about Fanny Brice, and a winning performance in that role makes the show worthwhile even if the rest of the production is flawed.  Plain and simple, Lindsey Jones is the main reason to see this show.  With excellent support from Wachter and Kyro, Jones overcomes the shortcomings of the script and an occasionally uneven supporting cast to present a memorable, appealing performance as Fanny Brice.  It’s definitely a characterization worth seeing.

Laura Kyro, Lindsey Jones, Zach Wachter, Lynda Waters Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Laura Kyro, Lindsey Jones, Zach Wachter, Lynda Waters
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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