Broadway at TPAC Opens 2024 Live Theater in Nashville With 'Startling, Stunning, Sexy' FUNNY GIRL

Katerina McCrimmon and Stephen Mark Lukas Lead National Touring Company of 'Classic, Golden Age Musical'

By: Jan. 03, 2024
Broadway at TPAC Opens 2024 Live Theater in Nashville With 'Startling, Stunning, Sexy' FUNNY GIRL

What a way to open a brand-new year of live theater in Nashville: in Funny Girl, audiences may have found exactly what they were longing for as Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s touring presentation provides a portentous kick-off to 2024. In fact, we can’t recall a standing ovation more gratifyingly sincere and genuine in the 35+ years we’ve been reviewing shows at TPAC than the one with which the company was rewarded on opening night in Andrew Jackson Hall. It was appreciative and effusive – downright enthusiastic and straight from the heart – the thunderous and sustained reaction to two-and-a-half hours of gloriously exhilarating musical theatre straight out of the golden age.

Broadway at TPAC Opens 2024 Live Theater in Nashville With 'Startling, Stunning, Sexy' FUNNY GIRL
Katerina McCrimmon

Replete with an updated book by Harvey Fierstein that gives an extra-special sheen to Isobel Lennart’s original script, and with the brassy and bold musical score by Jule Styne (the overture, in fact, rivals Gypsy’s for its pervasive sense of theatrical magic) and the memorable lyrics by Bob Merrill that were, no doubt, on the lips of almost every member of the audience (who were respectful enough of the artists onstage that they refrained from singing along – so far as I could tell from my seat in the orchestra) last night, this much anticipated revival of Funny Girl has it all. Featuring sublime performances from its leads – Katerina McCrimmon and Stephen Mark Lukas are startling, stunning, sexy and damned appealing – and presented in a brightly glittering physical production that evokes American musical theater at its very best, Funny Girl fills the theater with a palpable sense of excitement and conviviality that too often feels forced in works of more recent vintage.

I can honestly say I didn’t know just how much I wanted to love Funny Girl – I’d never seen a completely staged live performance, had read all the scuttlebutt about its creaky plotline and structure and its idealized, if fantastical, portrait of its central characters, was clued in to all the controversy connected to its recent Broadway revival – I felt informed and eminently prepared to see what they had in store for audiences in 2024. My reaction? I loved everything about it! Truth be told, It fed my musical theater-loving soul, and I fell head-over-heels with its stars and their outsized talents (They sing! They dance! They charm!). Hell, if I weren’t already booked, I’d see every performance while they’re in town and so, certainly, should you.

Broadway at TPAC Opens 2024 Live Theater in Nashville With 'Startling, Stunning, Sexy' FUNNY GIRL
Katerina McCrimmon and Izaiah Montaque Harris

The production design also evokes memories and images of Broadway in its golden age, thanks to David Zinn’s eye-popping scenic design, Susan Hilferty’s gorgeous costumes and Kevin Adam’s lighting design (I have to admit, nothing delights me more than some color-changing chasing lights that emphasize the musical motifs of a glitzy show).

Michael Mayer’s direction ensures a show that moves fluidly, with lovely transitions that add to the production’s innate theatricality, keeping his leading lady front and center while seamlessly allowing the rest of his estimable cast to show off their own showbiz bona fides. Ellenore Scott’s choreography is perfectly fitting for the show’s tone – not to mention its historical place in the canon of American musical theater – while Ayodele Casel’s tap choreography is breathtaking. Their dancers are, in a word, sublime.

Broadway at TPAC Opens 2024 Live Theater in Nashville With 'Startling, Stunning, Sexy' FUNNY GIRL
Katerina McCrimmon and Stephen Mark Lukas

Focusing on a highly fictionalized treatment of Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice and her tumultuous, if doomed, romantic relationship with gambler and man-about-town Nick Arnstein, the story is the stuff of theatrical legend, with Fierstein adding a (somewhat restrained) fillip of contemporary humor to make the story more palatable to current audiences. As a result, Fierstein’s book makes better use of supporting players who give the show greater variety that, somehow, doesn’t take the focus off Fanny. (Mark my words: When this revival makes its circuitous way to community theater land, the availability of roles for actors of different ages and ethnicities will make it even more appealing in the provinces.)

Make absolutely no mistake about it, Katerina McCrimmon is delightful as Fanny Brice, with a belt that will pin your ears back and enough vocal nuances and control that you are at once taken aback and captivated by her performance. She effortlessly and gracefully ages as her character does, growing in confidence and aplomb with each passing moment, confidently leading the company with her starmaking performance. By the end of Act One, during which she delivers a tour-de-force performance of “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” her audience is eager to stand up to show their thanks for her tremendous performance, while she closes Act Two with an even more noteworthy reprise of the show’s signature song that guarantees those audience members will leap to their feet for a much-deserved standing ovation.

Broadway at TPAC Opens 2024 Live Theater in Nashville With 'Startling, Stunning, Sexy' FUNNY GIRL
The national company of Funny Girl

Just as notable, however, are the quieter, more dramatic moments in which McCrimmon is called upon to show us Fanny at her most challenging: hopelessly lovestruck and endlessly devoted to Stephen Mark Lukas’ Nick Arnstein. Their duet in Act Two, “Who Are You Now?” (which, I confess, has forever and always been my favorite among Styne and Merrill’s songs for this show) is heartrendingly performed, romantic and intimate, offering insight into the relationship of Fanny and Nick, When coupled with Nick’s equally dramatic return from prison after three years, it lends gravitas to Funny Girl, which is most often brightly entertaining and wonderfully amusing.

Broadway at TPAC Opens 2024 Live Theater in Nashville With 'Startling, Stunning, Sexy' FUNNY GIRL McCrimmon’s soaring vocals and the stamina she displays throughout her impressive performance – which gives her scant time offstage throughout the show – ensures that you’ll be talking about her long after the curtain has rung down. Lukas, however, gives an equally impressive performance as Nick Arnstein, showing off his own admirable vocal chops (this revival beefs up the musical program for Nick, for sure) in the process, while displaying his comedic skills to perfection. Thus, when Nick appears down for the count, the gravity of the situation becomes all the more heartbreaking. While Lukas has already given us a Nick who is handsome, charming and glib, conversely he shows us his character’s darker, perhaps more compelling side, as well. We see the charming, somewhat vacuous Nick in a different light when he is broken and vulnerable, providing the ideal counterpoint to McCrimmon’s buoyant Fanny. The pair’s shared onstage chemistry is palpable and so much more authentic than anything we’ve seen before in a concert staging or on film.

Izaiah Montaque Harris is a scene-stealing wonder as Eddie Ryan, providing some much-appreciated razzle dazzle with his lighter-than-air tap dancing, while Barbara Tirrell is wonderful as the big-hearted Mrs. Brice, commanding the stage with her tremendous presence. Leah Platt is an essential part of the supporting cast as Fanny’s ever-present, right-hand woman Emma, and Walter Coppage cuts an elegant figure as showbiz legend Flo Ziegfeld.

Funny Girl. Music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Bob Merrill. Book by Isobel Lennart. Revised book by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Michael Mayer. Choreography by Ellenore Scott. Tap choreography by Ayodele Casel. Music supervision by Michael Rafter. Presented by Broadway at TPAC. At Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Andrew Jackson Hall, Nashville. Through Sunday, January 7. For details, go to Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).

Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy