by Roseann Cane
A small number of American musicals seem inseparable from the actors who originated the lead roles. For devotees of musical theater, Yul Brynner is The King and I; Robert Preston, The Music Man; and of course, Barbra Streisand is Funny Girl. Contemporary actors cast in these roles have a special burden in making each of these characters their own creation, knowing that many in the audience cannot avoid comparing and contrasting.
I was at once curious and concerned about the actress cast as Fanny Brice in The Mac-Haydn’s production. Streisand is a superstar, and Funny Girl is the show that catapulted her to international fame. But I needn’t have worried. From very early in the show, Lauren Palmeri proved herself a sensation in her own right, a triple-threat (actor/singer/dancer) to be reckoned with.
Funny Girl is a fictionalized biography of vaudeville and Ziegfeld Follies legend Fanny Brice. The show, which takes place in New York City and environs beginning a few years before World War I and ending a few years after, opened on Broadway in 1964 and closed in 1967 after 1,348 performances. The 1968 film adaptation was the top-grossing movie of that year.
Undoubtedly the combination of the relatable ugly-duckling storyline and bounty of funny, poignant, memorable music accounts for much of the show’s lasting popularity, but Streisand must be credited for the monumental success of Funny Girl. From its inception, the show’s creators had massive problems, including a veritable revolving door of writers, composers, directors, and would-be stars. (Mary Martin originally wanted the role, and other contenders were Anne Bancroft, Eydie Gorme, and Carol Burnett. Fortunately, composer Jule Styne remembered seeing the young Streisand in I Can Get It For You Wholesale.) Producer Ray Stark was married to Brice’s daughter, and while the family connection had its advantages, it also created a vortex of perils, not the least of which was a looming, litigious Nick Arnstein, very much alive, and apparently lacking the elegant manners and panache of the character bearing his name in Funny Girl.
In The Mac-Haydn production, the very handsome and talented Chris Cherin plays Arnstein. Cherin sings beautifully and performs passionately. He is also very young; in fact, to my eyes he appeared younger than Palmeri, which had the effect of dampening the sizzle between Fanny and Nick. I liked Cherin enormously, and I wish that he looked soignee, worldly, and sophisticated. Brice is written as earthy, provincial, inexperienced. The seduction and irresistible attraction between opposites like these makes their relationship that much more powerful, and Arnstein’s fall and Brice’s rise that much more heartbreaking.
By the same token, Palmeri is a very pretty woman, with a lovely, curvaceous figure; all the references in script and song to Fanny’s plain looks and flat-chested form become peculiar and certainly humorless. Even so, Palmeri is such a powerhouse, the audience, including yours truly, adored her.
The other members of the cast are terrific, too. Colin Pritchard shines as Fanny’s good friend Eddie Ryan. Judith Wyatt is engaging as Fanny’s tough-but-tender mother, and Brian Wagner is a regal Flo Ziegfeld. Bravo to Sebastiani Romagnolo, whose direction is clever and well paced, and whose choreography is delightful and evocative. The singers and dancers are positively effervescent.
Jimm Halliday has dressed the ensemble to the nines. The scenic design by Erin Kiernan is clever, making excellent use of the theater’s small stage. Andrew Gmoser’s ambitious lighting did an excellent job of enhancing the action as well as individual performers. The Mac-Haydn’s acoustics remains their Achilles heel, and once again, the orchestra too often overpowered the singers’ voices. Still, Musical Director David Maglione and Sound Designer Monica Gonzales-Burgos deserve praise for their skillful work.
It is always a great pleasure to exit a theater with a gratified, enthusiastic audience after a successful show, and bask in the happiness of the crowd. I was fortunate enough to be in that sea of smiling faces and happy chatter after Funny Girl, and I suspect that you will be, too, if you have the opportunity to see this show.
Funny Girl runs June 7-17, 2018 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 NY-203; Chatham, NY. Music by Jule Styne; Lyrics by Bob Merrill; Book by Isobel Lennart; Directed and Choreographed by Sebastiani Romagnolo; Musical Director David Maglione; scenic design by Erin Kiernan; lighting design by Andrew Gmoser. costume design by Jimm Halliday; sound design by Monica Gonzales-Burgos. CAST: Lauren Palmieri as Fanny Brice; Chris Cherin as Nicky Arnstein; Colin Pritchard as Eddie Ryan; Brian Wagner as Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.; Judith Wyatt as Mrs. Brice; Julie Galorenzo as Mrs. Strakosh; Betsy Padamonsky as Mrs. Meeker / Nadler; Meg Dooley as Mrs. O’Malley; Jonah Hale as Billy Bates/ John; Shannon Cunningham as Emma; Nathaniel Dolquist as Tom Keeney; Zachary Swartout as Heckie/ Adolph; Gino Cardoni as Mr. Rendali/ Mr. Winston; Troy Lingelbach as Paul; Jayke Workman as Snub Taylor’ Michael Brennan as Mr. Strakosh/ Mr. Davis/ Ragtime Otis; Michelle Atardo as Bubbles/ Jody/ Vera; Emma Flynn as Polly/ Mimsy; Emily Cobb as Maud/ Jenny; Julie Wagner as Kitty/ Cathy; Maggie Eley as Showgirl; Janna Bernard as Mrs. Vance/ Showgirl; Charlie Munday as Ben; Atsushi Eda as Stagehand/Groom.