“Funny Girl” at 6th Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA
Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Members, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
Photos by Eric Chazankin
A-dork-able, Dazzling “Funny Girl”
We owe a debt of gratitude to YouTube. Thanks to this ubiquitous online video site, there’s a historical record of nearly every human activity that was or can be captured in visual form, from lessons on how to apply eyeliner to grisly executions; from old TV reruns to ballet and opera. And YouTube is one of the remaining places where you are sure to see Fanny Brice in all her original glory.
This legendary and trailblazing singer, comedian, actress and radio star performed from the dawn of the 20th century until her death in 1951 at only 59 years old. She was an ordinary-looking woman possessed of extraordinary talent that captured the hearts of generations of theatregoers. Her legend took a flight of fancy in the retelling of her inspirational story when the musical “Funny Girl” first appeared in 1964, catapulting Barbra Streisand into the stratosphere. The show had a tortuous beginning with false starts in casting, directing and choreography. After many long delays, writes and rewrites, the book was finally completed by Isobel Lennart with a musical score by Jule Styne and Bob Merill. The story begins in 1910 with Brice’s early work in vaudeville, chronicles her rise to international fame in the Ziegfeld Follies, and ends in 1926 with her heartbreaking separation from her husband, the gangster and professional swindler Nicky Arnstein.
As told in flashback, the stage musical and subsequent film present a highly fictionalized but equally entertaining version of Brice’s life. The original Broadway hit that was “Funny Girl” was produced by Brice’s own son-in-law Ray Stark. He was facing a possible lawsuit by then-living Arnstein, so almost the entire story of Brice’s life was altered to cast Nicky in a more favorable light. And, as is the case with many biographical works, quite a bit of creative license was taken by Lennart to make Brice’s story even more compelling than it already was. Brice was from a prosperous family, not a poor one. She used neither roller-skates nor pregnant-pillows in her act. Nicky was far from handsome and was not even Brice’s first husband. It’s fact vs fiction, but at the end of the day, on stage and film, the results were nothing short of sensational.
“Funny Girl” isn’t presented at regional theaters very often, possibly because the title role calls for more than your usual triple-threat. In just one person, you need top-notch talent in both broad and subtle physical comedy, dramatic and comedic acting, and a strong, lyrical voice. These folks are hard to find outside of Broadway and Los Angeles, but with the help of a lucky penny, 6th Street Playhouse found its star, and does a pretty wonderful job presenting this challenging show for its new season kickoff.
Barry Martin, co-founder and president of of Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions was tapped to direct. He had always loved the show, but in directing it he fell in love with Brice, too. He describes her as “an amazing woman who was far ahead of her time, who took her career into her own hands and became a star on her own terms.” And for the role of Fanny Brice, his Lucky Penny co-founder Taylor Bartolucci – a treasure-trove of local talent – was chosen. From her opening scene until the end, Bartolucci grabs onto your heart and won’t let go. She plays Brice with such honest humility and originality, and her lovable klutz Fanny is so very down to earth that, just between us, she makes that other Funny Girl look like a big phony. Bartolucci shows us very clearly that Fanny uses her clowning as a shield to protect her tender heart. There’s no gloss, no glamour in this Fanny Brice – just raw, energized talent.
Playing Fanny’s shady husband Nicky is James Sasser, who imbues the role with polish and appeal, slowly developing his character from a rather stiff but classy dude to a loving friend. Janine LaForge as Fanny’s mother Rose nearly steals every scene she’s in, along with Barbara Nemko as her prickly-pear best friend Mrs Strakosh. Fanny’s longtime showbiz pal Eddie Ryan is played with warm sincerity by Anthony Martinez in a very engaging performance. Eddie stays by her side through thick and thin, harboring a hidden love as he helps her on her way to stardom.
There are so many wonderful moments in this show that it’s hard to choose favorites without writing a whole book, but let’s try. Some of the early Follies scenes, like the number “His Love Makes Me Beautiful”, complete with zany gorgeous showgirls, authentic period costumes (and that fateful pillow), take your breath away. “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is a standout number about Fanny knowing what she wants and going for it. The most popular hit song from the show, “People”, is featured in a key scene with Fanny and Nicky, and Bartolucci’s phrasing and interpretation of this lovely ballad are sheer perfection. But it’s the final number that sears the soul with her rendition of Brice’s standard “My Man”. It will make you forget you ever heard anyone else sing it. She makes the song, and the show, her own.
Martin’s confident direction trims the extravagant production down to size, distilling it to a potent, soulful elixir. He guides the performers in unexpected ways, especially if you’ve only seen the film. Dance numbers are effectively staged by LC Arisman, recently arrived from New York, although there are the usual troubles with tap numbers. Costumes by Barb Beatie work well in recalling fashions from late Edwardian to the Jazz Age. It’s easy to overlook the off-key horn section since it only seems to add to the charm. Occasional stumbles in choreography and uneven vocals are forgivable. The standing ovation at the end was saved for our Fanny, and it was well-deserved. Looks like 6th Street has another hit on its hands.
When: Now through September 14, 2014
8:00 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday
2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Tickets: $15 to $37
Location: GK Hardt Theater at 6th Street Playhouse
52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa CA