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Hillbarn gets ambitious with ‘Funny Girl’

Hillbarn Theatre has begun its 74th season with an ambitious musical undertaking, “Funny Girl.”

Loosely based on the life of comedienne Fanny Brice, the show premiered on Broadway in 1964 and became a popular film in 1968. Both starred Barbra Streisand as Fanny.

Melissa WolfKlain takes on that daunting role in this production and does it more than ample justice with her terrific singing, acting, dancing and comic timing.

Written by Isobel Lennart, the story takes place shortly before and after World War I as Fanny breaks into show business and becomes a star in the Ziegfeld Follies. During that time, she meets the handsome, charming Nick Arnstein (William Giammona), a gambler. Giammona looks the part of Nick, but his acting can be stiff, and there’s not much chemistry between him and WolfKlain.

They marry and have a daughter, but his involvement in a shady bond deal lands him in prison for 18 months and leads to the end of their marriage.

Jule Styne’s music, with lyrics by Bob Merrill, includes such favorites as “I’m the Greatest Star,” “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” all sung by Fanny.

Besides Nick, another important man in her life is her longtime, loyal friend, Eddie Ryan (Justin Travis Buchs). He’s a vaudeville dancer who coaches her early in her career and quietly carries a torch for her. Buchs is an accomplished dancer who stands out in “Cornet Man” and “Rat-tat-tat-tat.”

Other major figures are Mrs. Brice (Tracy Chiappone), Fanny’s mother; Emma (Jenifer Butler), her friend and assistant; and Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (Dennis M. Lickteig), Follies producer.

The Hillbarn production features an outstanding ensemble of dancers executing choreography by James Zongus. Seated on a platform behind a new wall in the theater, the 17-piece orchestra is led by musical director Joe Murphy.

Hillbarn’s new executive artistic director, Dan Demers, directs the show and does his best to keep it moving smoothly. However, it has many different scenes, and Hillbarn’s stage is small. Despite the unusual use of a proscenium setting (design by Kuo-Hao Lo), the many set changes lend an episodic feeling, especially in the second act.

Costumes by Lisa Cross provide WolfKlain and the women dancers with one lovely outfit after another. Don Coluzzi’s lighting design isn’t up to his usual standards.

Fanny Brice was born in New York’s Lower East Side in 1891 and died in 1951 at the age of 59. Besides her stage and film work, she created a popular radio character, Baby Snooks.

“Funny Girl” will continue at Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, through Sept. 21. For tickets and information, call (650) 349-6411 or visit

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