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Funny Girl

Fanny Brice returned in triumph to the New Amsterdam Theatre last night, courtesy of a gala benefit concert version of Funny Girl that was (predictably) somewhat under-rehearsed but (also predictably) thrilling.

A flawed but wonderful show with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, and book by Isobel Lennart, Funny Girl tells the fact-based story of singer-comedian Fanny Brice's rise to stardom in the Ziegfeld Follies at the New Amsterdam, contrasted with her ultimately heartbreaking romance and marriage with gambler Nick Arnstein. The show isn't revived as often as others of its ilk, no doubt because the title role is almost irrevocably associated with Barbra Streisand, who zoomed to Broadway stardom when she starred in the original production in 1964 and then conquered Hollywood by recreating the part in the 1968 film version. Apparently, the specter of Streisand is so intimidating that productions of the show are relatively few and far between -- although Deborah Gibson had the guts to star in a short-lived tour a few years back.

Partly for this reason, no doubt, Seth Rudetsky -- musical director and artistic producer of last night's Actors' Fund of America benefit concert of the show -- ingeniously decided to split the role between 16 women, listed here in alphabetical order: Carolee Carmello, Kristin Chenoweth, Sutton Foster, Ana Gasteyer, Whoopi Goldberg, Spencer Kayden, Jane Krakowski, Judy Kuhn, LaChanze, Ricki Lake, Andrea Martin, Idina Menzel, Julia Murney, Bebe Neuwirth, Alice Playten, and Lillias White. (Curiously, Playten was the only one not listed in the program, and a large percentage of the audience seemed unable to identify her.) Each of these women was given one scene to play, almost always including a song or musical moment.

Carolee Carmello
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Prior to the concert, there was much speculation as to how the musical's many songs for Fanny would be doled out among the performers. As it turned out, the choices were excellent. Sutton Foster started things off by almost bringing down the house with her rendition of "I'm the Greatest Star." (Amazingly, Foster had to run -- literally! -- from the New Amsterdam to the Marriott Marquis to be there in curtain-time for Thoroughly Modern Millie, in which she stars. Presumably, she made it, and was only able to do so because the Funny Girl concert began at about 7:30pm and her number was over at about 7:50!) Then, in succession: Idina Menzel was hot and sexy in "Cornet Man," Ricki Lake was vulnerable and moving in the "Nicky Arnstein, Nicky Arnstein" sequence; Chenoweth dazzled with both her comic genius and her high soprano money notes in "His Love Makes Me Beautiful"; LaChanze was charm personified -- and so was her partner, Peter Gallagher, as Nick Arnstein -- in "I Want to Be Seen With You"; Julia Murney put her own persuasive stamp on the mega-hit "People"; Ana Gasteyer had a ball with Gallagher in "You Are Woman, I Am Man"; and Lillias White brought the first act to a rousing close by making "Don't Rain on My Parade" her own.

Act II opened with the adorable Jane Krakowski doing "Sadie, Sadie." This was followed by the game and funny Bebe Neuwirth as Private Schwartz from Rockaway in "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat"; Judy Kuhn in creamy voice for the beautiful "Who Are You Now?"; Andrea Martin doing a nice job with the unnecessarily interpolated, second-rate title song from the film version of Funny Girl; and an absolutely breathtaking, time-stood-still rendition of "The Music That Makes Me Dance" by Carolee Carmello.

Stellar support was provided throughout by Gallagher -- as suave, charming, and devilishly handsome a Nick Arnstein as anyone could wish for -- and by the terrific John Scherer as song and dance man Eddie Ryan. Old-time show biz know-how and talent was displayed by Kaye Ballard as Mrs. Brice and Marcia Lewis Bryan (billed as Marcia Lewis for years until her recent marriage) as Mrs. Strakosh, while Len Cariou was a commanding yet sympathetic Flo Ziegfeld. Gary Beach had lots of fun with the small role of Keeney, Jason

Kristin Chenoweth
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Danieley sang gorgeously as the Ziegfeld tenor, and cameos by everyone from Sam Harris to Brad Oscar to Robin Byrd to Streisand impersonator Steven Brinberg sparked the proceedings. The members of the large ensemble sang and danced their little hearts out. Director Peter Flynn handled his Herculean task with aplomb, and the choreography of Devenand Janki and Robert Tatad was mightily impressive, especially the "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat" number. Lighting and sound were somewhat spotty, but not that bad at all given the lack of rehearsal time, and Rob Bissinger's set -- centered on a grand staircase, in true Ziegfeld Follies style -- was far more elaborate than one might have expected.

In fact, only two of the show's flaws seemed not quite forgivable under the circumstances. First, though the orchestra played pretty well overall, the string section was noticeably out of tune throughout the evening. (I was hoping they'd regroup and re-tune during intermission, but no.) Second, it's sad to report that Whoopi Goldberg was a non-presence in her two appearances -- which, unfortunately, book-ended the show. Goldberg's generally laid-back, deadpan style is ill suited to the role of Fanny Brice in any case, but the woman seemed so uninvolved on this occasion that "walking through" her scenes would not be an inaccurate description of what she was doing. Though her generosity towards The Actors' Fund is admirable, one wonders why Goldberg took an active part in the performance when it seemed clear that she did not want to do so.

Fortunately, the overall excitement of the evening more than balanced such disappointments. Though this monumental production -- which must have been a logistical nightmare -- was not as polished as The Actors' Fund's Dreamgirls concert last year, it was still quite the event, and far more than worth the money I paid for my ticket.