BWW Review: The Fugard's FUNNY GIRL - with Ashleigh Harvey as a Powerhouse Fanny Brice - a Valentine to Gentler and Jollier Times
For a musical that ran for more than three years in its initial run on Broadway, FUNNY GIRL (1964) has made surprisingly few appearances on musical theatre main stages in the half century since producer Ray Stark decided to ring down the curtain on his original production. Indeed, the show has never been back to Broadway except as a one-night-only benefit concert in 2002, while a revival in the West End appeared only last year in the form of a transfer of a 2015 Menier Chocolate Factory production. The Fugard's first new musical production of 2017 puts FUNNY GIRL on South African stages, and the results are delightful - with a powerhouse performance from Ashleigh Harvey as Fanny Brice, the stage, radio and film personality around whom everyone and everything in the show revolves.
FUNNY GIRL draws its inspiration from the first half of Brice's life, focusing on Fanny's rise to stardom and her relationship with Nick Arnstein. Beginning as she waits for Nick in her dressing room in the late 1920s, the show flashes back almost twenty years to a time when Fanny was little more than a stage-struck teenager hoping to make it big. She rises through the ranks, becoming a headliner in the Ziegfeld Follies within two years of landing her first job in vaudeville. It is in her early days as a performer when she first meets Nick, and although it is love at first sight, the two get off to a rocky start when Nick ducks out of a date, saying he has to board a train. Such excuses disappear, however, by the time that Fanny is a bona fide star, at which time Fanny is even prepared to sacrifice her career to marry him. But the full extent of what it means to be married to a man euphemistically referred to as a professional gambler is only revealed - in the show at least, for the real-life Fanny was not as naïve as her stage counterpart - after the wedding night.
Many attribute the difficulties of reviving FUNNY GIRL to Barbra Streisand's iconic performance in the original production, one that she preserved on film to Academy Award-winning effect in 1968. But to do so is to overlook the fact that the show ran in New York for half of its run without Streisand. Certainly, no matter what comparisons are made with Streisand's unique talent, there are many actresses - from Mimi Hines to Sheridan Smith and our own Ashleigh Harvey - who have carried the show on their talented shoulders, each with her own spin on the character.
Harvey's capacity to make Fanny incredibly human, for example, is what sets her apart from the rest. While she lands the comedy and the songs as any Fanny must, her performance is as much about what she does not say or sing as what she does. The detail and integrity with which Harvey creates her take on the role lend her a compelling presence whenever she appears on stage. She feels deeply authentic as a world of glamour and feathers and mansions and fake smiles and carefully constructed appearances spins around her.
I would wager that it is less the Streisand spell than Isobel Lennert's book for the show, which is almost universally criticised for its weaknesses, that makes producers wary of selling the show to contemporary audiences. Lennert's meandering construction of the second act and her way of dealing with gender, which was dated even back in the 1960s, are formidable challenges.
And even though Fanny runs the gamut of emotions from 'sweet as pie' to 'tough as leather' over the show's duration, Nick is the slightest of foils, with little to offer actors who take on the role. Here, Clyde Berning wrestles valiantly with the role, but it is a thankless affair. One factor that played a key role in this imbalance was the real-life Nicky Arnstein, who was still living at the time of the show's debut. Lennert, under the supervision of Stark, who just happened to be Brice and Arnstein's son-in-law, had to apply some creative editing to Arnstein's biography to avoid the kind of litigation that might have sunk the show before it began. Like everything else under the sun, alternative facts are perhaps quite as new as we imagine them to be. At any rate, despite some standout scenes, the sum total of Lennert's work adds up to little more than a way of getting from one song cue to the next and even Harvey Fierstein's revisions for the recent West End revival did not help things much according to the critics who reviewed the show there.
What has helped the legend of FUNNY GIRL to endure is Jule Styne and Bob Merrill's appealing score, which features the standards "People" and "Don't Rain on My Parade" as well as gems like "I'm The Greatest Star" and "The Music That Makes Me Dance". All of those and the full original score of the production are heard on stage at The Fugard, with one exception. "Rat-tat-tat-tat", a Follies number in which Fanny plays a World War I soldier named Private Schwartz from Rockaway who makes 'the Kaiser run a block away', is replaced by its film counterpart, "The Swan", a hilarious pastiche of SWAN LAKE.
The company members of The Fugard's FUNNY GIRL puts across their numbers with great flair and conviction. Harvey delivers the goods in the show's two anthems and her duets with Berning ("I Want to Be Seen with You Tonight" and "You are Woman") are everything they should be - frothy and fun and romantic.
The resourcefully comic Kate Normington and the irresistibly charming Cameron Botha have a blast with "Who Taught Her Everything?" and are captivating throughout in their roles as Mrs Brice and Eddie Ryan respectively. Diane Wilson is devilishly delightful as the neighbourhood standard setter, Mrs Strakosh, while Lucy Tops delivers a beautifully understated and sensitive performance as Emma, Fanny's dresser and assistant.
In minor roles as Mrs Meeker, Keeney and Ziegfeld, Michèle Maxwell, Grant Towers and Mike Huff offer solid support, as do the nine-strong ensemble of Daniel Fisher, Ambre Chanel Fulton, Michèle la Trobe, Sven-Eric Müller, Sibusiso Mxosana, LJ Neilson, Tyla Nurden, Jenna Robinson-Child and Tamryn van Houten.
Director Matthew Wild and choreographer Louisa Talbot keep the show moving fast enough to disguise the book's flaws, largely succeeding in that arduous task, both showing a flair for the kind of wit in their staging that Lennert only achieves in her best moments. Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and his band of ten accomplished musicians serve the score beautifully.
Saul Radomsky's design beautifully sketches out the period, with some staggeringly wondrous set pieces, including a gorgeous white scalloped curtain as well as a drop for Keeney's Theatre adorned with a whimsical illustration of a woman rapturously delighting in a rose-emblazoned hat. Birrie le Roux's costumes also evoke a picture book of the period. Technically, the show also received top notch attention from Daniel Galloway and Benjamin du Plessis in its lighting design and Mark Malherbe on sound.
FUNNY GIRL will never be the kind of definitive musical theatre classic that, say, GYPSY (1959) or HELLO DOLLY! (1964) are. Written more like the Cinderella musicals so popular in the period during which it is set than the Golden Age musicals that endure today, FUNNY GIRL is neither as virtuosic as Styne's earlier show with Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents nor as breath-taking an entertainment as Jerry Herman's collaboration with Michael Stewart. But it does offer what so many people crave from musicals - pure nostalgia - and The Fugard's production of FUNNY GIRL satisfies that kind of wistfulness for gentler and jollier times in spades.
Performances of FUNNY GIRL run at The Fugard Theatre from Tuesdays to Fridays at 20:00, on Saturdays at 16:00 and 20:00 and on Sundays at 16:00. Tickets, ranging from R130 to R350, and are available online from Computicket or by phone on 0861 9158 000. As usual, there is safe parking diagonally opposite the Fugard Theatre.