Review: FUNNY GIRL at The Hippodrome

The fantastically revised Broadway revival lands in Baltimore for one week

By: Oct. 25, 2023
Review: FUNNY GIRL at The Hippodrome

When I was a kid, I wanted nothing so much as to be Barbara Streisand in Funny Girl. I mean, it literally shaped my career aspirations. And I desperately wanted to see the stage version, having practically worn out my LP of the Broadway musical. I even sang Cornet Man as my audition piece for the Cincinnati Conservatory Musical Theatre Program (I didn’t get in.)  So when I heard almost 50 years later that it was finally, finally! coming back to Broadway, I was beside myself. Well, the ravages of time and covid and life in general kept getting in the way and I missed the revival on Broadway. So seeing it last night at The Hippodrome in Baltimore was the fulfillment of my childhood dream. And it did not disappoint one bit! But let’s get the expository stuff out of the way so I can get on with my review, shall we? 

Producer Ray Stark wanted to bring the story of legendary vaudeville and radio star Fanny Brice to the stage as far back as the 50’s. Not too coincidentally, he happened to be married to her daughter, Francis. When it finally landed on Broadway in 1964, starring a mostly unknown Barbara Streisand, it set the stage on fire, propelling Babs into stratospheric Broadway, recording, and movie stardom. The movie version netted her an Oscar. When the show was revived on Broadway with Beanie Feldstein in the lead, it landed with a major thud. It wasn’t until Lea Michele, who should have had the role in the first place, took over, that the revival proved itself as a worthy successor to the original. It ran on Broadway for 599 performances before hitting the road with the cast now playing in Baltimore.

This production is not quite as lavish as I was expecting, but the big, bold, beautiful cast more than makes up for any lack of scenery. Harvey Fierstein is credited with revising the book, and the music by Jules Styne and Bob Merrill holds up just fine. The songs are so familiar that the audience knows most of them, but there are a few surprises for those of us who have only seen the movie, which differs from the stage version in some significant ways, including expanded roles for some supporting characters.

Michael Mayer’s direction is well-paced, and the choreography by Elenore Scott, and especially the tap choreography by Ayodele Casel is stomping good. The choreography had obviously been designed to highlight the strengths of the leads without dumbing down the routines that didn’t involve them. The ensemble was spot on, and the moments of gratuitous tap dancing were definitely appreciated due to the superlative skill level of the dancers. The entire company handled the precision-based choreo like the pros that they are.

I’m a little mystified by the trope of having the cast move in slow motion to connotate Fanny’s memories (at least I think that was what it was), but hey, it worked in the moment, so it worked for me. The costumes by Susan Hilferty were perfectly period, and I loved the butterfly wing bits that appeared a couple of times. While I would have liked to have seen some of the opulence of the Ziegfeld Follies during those musical numbers, the set was nonetheless more than serviceable and occasionally quite clever, and the lighting design was downright inspired. The orchestra led by Elaine Davidson was every bit as good as I expect from a national tour of a major Broadway show.

The supporting cast is rock solid and exceptionally well-cast. And in each of the walk-on bits, the cast was always well-selected for the part.

Christine Bunuan and Hanna Shankman were delightful accompaniment as the Henry Street neighbors. Emma, Fanny’s friend and personal maid was nicely portrayed by Leah Platt. And Walter Coppage was a formidable Florenz Ziegfield.

Despite my disappointment at not being able to see Melissa Manchester, another favorite singer of mine from the 70s and beyond, I was wonderfully entertained by Eileen T’Kaye as Mrs. Brice, Fanny’s mom. She was a typical Jewish mother (at least as presented in show business) but there was nothing hackneyed or overplayed in her performance.

Izaiah Montague Harris is a tap dancin’ stand-out. Bright and bubbly with spirit one minute, and gentle and sweet with Fanny (unrequited love? hmm…) the next, he sang and danced like a veteran entertainer, and I hope to see him on many more stages.

I’m old school enough to admit, that I like a little eye candy as much as the next reprobate. So when Stephen Mark Lukas appears with his shirt open and barefooted in the scene set in Monte Carlo, I gaped along with most of the audience. But I digress. Mr. Lukas was in fine form as Nicky Arnstein and has a voice that to me ranks right up there with the stars of yore from Broadway and Hollywood like Harve Presnell and John Raitt. He was as smooth as silk and as polished and gallant as a Broadway leading man should be. And in his final scene when life has taken the dashing Mr. Arnstien down a peg or two, his body language captures the mood tenderly.

I’m the first to admit that it is very difficult to watch a production that is so deeply identified with one performer that it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. And while Katerina McCrimmon did not exactly have me saying, ‘Barbara who?’, she did absolutely make the part of Fanny Brice entirely her own. She was broader, more brash, especially in the early scenes, and playing it that way made it entirely her own, terrific interpretation. There’s a line from ‘The Greatest Star’, that goes something like, ‘I got 36 expressions, sweet as pie to tough as leather.’ I believe Ms. McCrimmon probably used all of them. From her take-no-prisoners belt that starts somewhere in her deep south and hits more highs than Snoop Dog’s posse when she sings ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’, to her plaintive, contemplative softness on ‘Who Are You Now?’, this is a voice for the ages. Her rubber faced mugging is a true homage to the real Fanny Brice. There’s lots of archival footage you can check out to bear out that observation. Ms. McCrimmon is so well suited for this part that it’s as though it was just waiting for her.

For my money, there are now three definitive Fannys. Ms. Streisand and Ms. Michele, another star has joined the firmament.         

I waited fifty years to see this production of Funny Girl. It was worth every minute of the wait.

Funny Girl runs through October 29th, 2023 at The Hippodrome, 12 North Eutaw Street, Baltimore, MD. Click here for information and tickets.

Photo by Matthew Murphy, MurphyMade

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