Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Dear Funny Girl: Let Julie Benko Sing!

Also, Tanya O'Debra's Shut UP, Emily Dickinson is an irreverent romp and Sister Shakes' rousing female-identifying and non-binary 5-actor Romeo & Juliet.

By: Aug. 07, 2022

This week...

Romeo & Juliet presented by Sister Shakes Productions through August 14 at Under St. Marks Theatre as part of FRIGID's Little Shakespeare Festival. ($25 or pay what you can)

Shut UP, Emily Dickinson at Abrons Arts Center through August 13. ($31, students $21)

Funny Girl at the August Wilson Theatre. ($69 discount tickets available)

Inexpensive and recommended...

Down To Eartha at Gene Frankel Theatre, August 18-21. Dierdra McDowell's excellent solo play about Eartha Kitt being blacklisted after her anti-war comments during a White House luncheon. ($25, students/seniors $20)

Looking forward to...

Mom On Skype at Irondale, August 13 & 14 ($30, students/seniors/working artists $15). An ensemble of Ukrainian children have been flown to America to perform a play they created and premiered while in a bomb shelter.

Opening number...

Back in 2005, I caught the terrific musical theatre triple-threat Charlotte d'Amboise filling in for Christina Applegate in that season's Broadway revival of Sweet Charity, the Neil Simon/Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields musical comedy that, when premiering in 1966, was shaped by director/choreographer Bob Fosse into a smash vehicle for Gwen Verdon.

Since then, the title role of Charity Hope Valentine has been a signature piece for notable musical theatre dancers such as Chita Rivera on tour, Juliet Prowse in London, Debbie Allen and Ann Reinking in the 1986 Broadway revival and, of course, Shirley MacLaine on film.

The daughter of New York City Ballet stars Jacques d'Amboise (a Kennedy Center honoree) and Carolyn George, Charlotte d'Amboise had achieved the rank of Tony nominated Broadway dance star with Jerome Robbins' Broadway and was knocking 'em dead (as she still does on occasion) as Roxie Hart in Chicago.

No doubt, Charlotte d'Amboise did a bang-up job that night while Applegate was recovering from an injured foot, but I left the theatre with a feeling that what kept her from truly soaring was that she was in a production that staged for a star known more for her comedy talent than her dance ability. It's often said by standbys and understudies that their job is to closely replicate the performance of the person regularly playing the role and, while I have no inside dope on the situation, it wouldn't surprise me if the dance star was regulated to choreography that was created for someone not quite of her expertise.

I had the same feeling while watching Julie Benko doing a similarly bang-up job last Tuesday night in the first performance of her 5-week run as the 8-times-a-week Fanny Brice in the Broadway revival of Funny Girl. Like many theatre fans, I'd been reading the raves she's been getting as Beanie Feldstein's standby, and since I doubted press would be offered comps during her run, I sprung for a ticket to see for myself.

Benko grabbed my attention, oh so subtly, in the opening scene, which, in Harvey Fierstein's revision of Isobel Lennart's book, has Fanny looking into a mirror to sing a snippet of the ballad "Who Are You Now?". As originally written by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill, Fanny sings the words to her husband Nick Arnstein, trying to make sense of the state of their marriage. But here it's an introspective moment that Benko sings with a light whisper of a voice that sounds fully supported; strength carrying vulnerability. I was excited to hear what would come next.

But by the end of the night, I was convinced that Fierstein's revisions, intentionally or not, significantly cut down on the lead character's flashier vocal moments, which was the only thing I felt was keeping the new star from truly soaring.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  Dear Funny Girl:  Let Julie Benko Sing!
Kurt Csolak, Julie Benko and Justin Prescott
(Photo: Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade)

For instance, the sexy blues intro to "Cornet Man", a moment where the young Fanny gets a chance to really show her stuff, has been cut in favor of a new plot point that has Brice struck with stage fright while making her debut at Keeney's vaudeville house. Watching her gradually gain her confidence while performing the number is a cute routine, but it takes away the opportunity for a terrific "greatest star" vocal performance.

When it's time for "Who Are You Now?" to be sung fully by Fanny, late in the second act, the chance hear Benko's captivating quiet strength carry through to the end of the number is eliminated as the new version has the song evolve into a duet with Ramin Karimloo's Nick, leading into a reprise of the show's hit song, People.

But the most drastic vocal cut is that the extraordinary torch song that has always served as Funny Girl's 11 o'clock number, "The Music That Makes Me Dance". The selection that boasts Styne's most exquisitely complex melody in the score is halted before the big finish, denying the audience a chance to cheer the star belting the song's devastating climax. Instead we see a ballet of Fanny's memories which eventually leads into her singing "Funny Girl", a far less complex and vocally demanding song that was added for the film. This transitions to the musical's traditional finish, a short, inspiring reprise of "Don't Rain On My Parade." It's a cheer-inducing moment, for sure, but the potential thrill of hearing a huge response to Benko ringing out the finish of that 11 o'clocker sure is missed.

"Somebody else already wrote The Belle of Amherst, and it was... fine."

By the time our esteemed narrator (Gregg Bellón) has taken his low-key swipe at William Luce's popular bio-play, it's already become apparent that playwright/actor Tanya O'Debra's Shut UP, Emily Dickinson ($31, students $21) is not going to be, as our host sarcastically states, "My Book Report on Emily Dickinson, by Tanya O'Debra."

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  Dear Funny Girl:  Let Julie Benko Sing!
Tanya O'Debra and Gregg Bellón
(Photo: George Courtney)

Well, I suppose the title gives that away pretty quickly, but if not, certainly the completely white set and props of director Sara Wolkowitz's production (no set designer is credited) - a reference to the poet's reputation as The Woman In White - and the fact that, upon entry, the audience can see the title character wrapped in her bedsheet in a nightgown with her back to the house, are strong clues.

After being gifted a book of Emily Dickinson's poetry, O'Debra, after some rudimentary research, concluded that the famous Amherst recluse was most likely "a deeply annoying person," so her portrayal is less of a proper, witty New England intellectual and more of a snarky East Village wiseass whose esoteric genius can be sexually alluring to the unprepared. Hang around artistic/literary enclaves long enough and you've probably dated a couple of them before developing self-esteem.

What little plot there is in the 65 minute proceedings is inspired by an collection of letters and poems Dickinson addressed to "The Master." Stationed upstage, Bellón seems to represent an assortment of steadying presences for O'Debra to play off of, including The Master and a pizza delivery guy.

I won't claim to really get Shut UP, Emily Dickinson, but watching how the literary giant balances contemplating mortality, obsessing over cats and thirsting for compliments on her latest social media photo was weird and fun.

Press invitation of the week...

There is so much live theatre going on in New York and every week, critics and other theatre journalists find their email inboxes stuffed with invites to more than any human can possibly handle. But an eye-catching description can put a show at the head of the must-see list. Like this one for Stephanie Swirsky's Don't Do This To Us!, playing August 12-28 at The Tank. (Tickets $35)

"It's 2022 and Rachel is worried about the growing anti-Semitism in the US and around the world. She blames Jared Kushner for making the world more dangerous for Jews because his public image embodies the worst of Jewish stereotypes: he's wealthy, avaricious, and ominously wields world power behind the scenes. She devises a plan to go back in time to 1999, hook up with teenager-Jared, and break his penis, preventing him from marrying Ivanka - saving the lives and reputation of Jews around the world."

While a friend of mine once described Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet as "a bit of a bro-show"...

...for its abundance of flashy male characters strutting their testosterone across the stage, Sister Shakes Productions, a New York-based company on a mission to present female-identifying and non-binary stories, casts the Bard's classic with an eye towards interrogating the concepts of masculinity and femininity and centering on queer joy.

Presented at the cozy Under St. Marks Theatre as part of FRIGID's Little Shakespeare Festival, director Sam Stone's abridged, 90-minute production may be bare-bones, but the five young company members give rousing, funny and enthused performances, with Annella Kaine's lusty Romeo and Shelby Capone's flirtatious Juliet leading the ensemble of Yessenia Rivas, Michael Springthorpe and Natalia Urzua, who all play multiple roles. With tickets available on a pay what you can basis, this would be a great production for younger theatregoers just getting into Shakespeare.

Curtain Line...

Suggested name for business specializing in delivering non-traditional opening night gifts: I Won't Send Roses.