BWW Review: FUNNY GIRL at Théâtre Marigny
Although it truly deserves to, Funny Girl has never quite belonged on the top-of-the-list classic musicals, despite multiple Tonys for the original Broadway production (which ran 1348 performances) and Academy Awards for its successful movie adaptation. It never had a Broadway revival after the unexpected cancellation of the Bartlett Sher production in Los Angeles and was only revived once in London in 2016 at the Chocolate Factory, subsequently transferring to the West End, then touring.
Although the Jule Styne score, his very best second only to Gypsy, contains some of the greatest show tunes ever, such as "Don't Rain On My Parade", it was only recorded three times, including the movie soundtrack. All this history can be explained quite simply: Funny Girl has always been regarded as a star vehicle for Barbra Streisand because, even though it was not a return or comeback for her, it made her one of the world's biggest stars. Barbra's shadow has since hung over any project related to the show, notably (and humorously) in the sit com Glee, in which Streisand's wannabe and almost look-alike Lea Michelle stars in a Broadway revival which never happened in real life!
Though Isobel Lennart's book, based on the life of the late Jewish comedian Fanny Brice (stepmother to the show's producer Ray Stark), is far from being as good as Arthur Laurent's book for Gyspsy, it didn't really need the revisions Harvey Fierstein made to it for the London Revival. Indeed, the second act has never worked so well as it has in this first Paris production.
Châtelet and Marigny veteran director-choreographer Stephen Mear (On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, 42nd Street, Guys and Dolls) has already taken a crack at Funny Girl, choreographing an excellent revival at the Chichester Festival in 2008, which starred a very Jewish but vocally inferior Samantha Spiro channeling a lot more Brice than Streisand. Stephen recreated his show-stopping tap number to "Rat Tat Tat" for this Paris production. Too bad he didn't do the same for "Cornet Man", which was better as the ensemble number in Chichester.
But this is of trivial importance, since Mear, now director and choreographer, has found in the person of Christina Bianco, best known for her viral diva impersonations on YouTube, a leading lady entirely worthy of Streisand, fitting into the part of Fanny like a glove and doing justice vocally and emotionally to the show's biggest songs in a way no one else has done since Barbra. An accomplished actrice, as well as singer and dancer, Christina really makes the part her own (I guess this gorgeous woman's short size is supposed to fulfill the ugly duckling criterion of the character), and she nails every song, notably the haunting "The Music That Makes Me Dance" (unfortunately replaced by "My Man" in the movie and so wrongly done uptempo in the London Revival), resulting in a well-deserved nightly standing ovation.
West End first-rate song-and-dance-man Ashley Day (An American in Paris, 42nd Street) is a more than capable leading man in is first non-dancing part, quite convincing as the handsome gambler Nick Arnstein, especially in his angry reprise of "Don't Rain On My Parade." His chemistry with Christina is palpable in their two charming duets, "You Are Women, I Am Man" and "I Want To Be Seen With You".
The rest of the cast is equally top notch. West End veteran Rachel Stanley, recently seen in Goodbye Norma Jean at the Above the Stag Theater and in An Officer and a Gentleman on tour, is the ideal Mrs. Brice. Young song-and-dance-man Matthew Jeans, fresh from playing the lead in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Kilworth House Theatre (where he previously appeared in Thoroughly Modern Millie, also under the direction of Stephen Mear), is a likeable Eddie Ryan. Another West End veteran Mark Inscoe might be a little to likeable, on the other hand, as Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., whereas Ashley Knight is excellent as always in the smaller part of Mr. Keeney. Shirley Jameson is perfectly cast as Mrs. Strakosh and the ensemble is as perfectly drilled as those of any other Stephen Mear show.
The original set design by Peter McKintosh and the lighting by Tim Mitchell add to the high standards of this production. But, besides Christina and Ashley of course, the big star of the evening is the 14-piece orchestra, impeccably conducted by James McKeon, who already served as musical director for Guys and Dolls at Marigny last season. He does full justice to the greatness of Julie Styne's music.
This first rate production of one of the truly great, albeit often overlooked, musicals is not to be missed in Paris till January 5 in the beautifully refurbished Marigny Théâtre. Thanks again to the Jean-Luc Chopelin, former director of the Châtelet Theater, for his impeccable taste and excellent choices of classic American musicals, and for boldly daring to introduce these gems to the French public in their original English with subtitles .