Review: FUNNY GIRL On Tour Is a Parade with Light Showers — Dr. Phillips Center

Katerina McCrimmon makes a big impression in an imperfect show and a hard-to-get-right role.

By: Dec. 08, 2023
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Review: FUNNY GIRL On Tour Is a Parade with Light Showers — Dr. Phillips Center

People who need people? They’re the luckiest people. But musicals that need a once-in-a-lifetime talent to compensate for their narrative shortcomings? Less lucky.

Then again, Funny Girl’s been lucky at least twice. First in 1964, when an ingenue named Barbra Streisand made it an overnight sensation. And again last year, when “Glee” star Lea Michele poured a little rain on Beanie Feldstein’s parade, controversially usurping the lead role but turning the struggling revival into a certified smash.  

That’s what it takes to make Funny Girl work, or so critics have argued for nearly sixty years: lightning-level divadom with star power on loan from God. Nothing less can carry the barely there, vaguely true story of early-1900s comedienne Fanny Brice.

But now Funny Girl is on tour without Ms. Michele, and with Streisand’s legendary performance (reprised in a popular 1968 film version) casting a long shadow.

So can lightning really strike the same show thrice? (Or four times, for those who saw and loved Julie Benko’s underrecognized run as Feldstein’s standby and Michele’s alternate?)

Early on, when Katerina McCrimmon breaks into “I’m the Biggest Star” — one of the beltier Brice numbers — it’s easy to think that it has. There isn’t a note in the sweeping scale of this score that escapes her rangy, room-rattling voice.

But when it comes time for the iconic “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” which is technically perfect in McCrimmon’s delivery, I can’t help but notice that the room isn’t alive with the same electricity that had Broadway patrons hovering above their seats waiting to explode into a mid-song standing ovation for Michele.  

It’s an impossible standard, really. Streisand’s performance — her first in a starring role — was like the discovery of precious metal. Michele’s was the culmination of an entire generation’s pop cultural arc. (She rose to fame on TV playing a Funny Girl-obsessed teenager who eventually landed her dream role in a fictional revival of the show.) In a very real sense, McCrimmon and her cast are people who need people to check their unrealistic expectations at the door.

An audience is not unreasonable, though, to ask for sets resembling those seen on Broadway. But Funny Girl makes funny choices on tour, like substituting the New York revival’s artfully understated set pieces with unremarkable tableaus printed atop wrinkly scrims. They look cheap and distracting and sometimes don’t even match the setting of a given scene. Bordering those backdrops is a light-up arch meant to imply the popcorn lights of Broadway but that looks more like the neon curvature of an aging dive bar’s skittish jukebox.

Choreography is mostly on point, even if the show’s latest (and longest) of several excessive tap-dance sequences skews sloppy, or at least it did on Wednesday night. Costumes fair better, capturing the revival’s dazzling designs, including Fanny’s instantly iconic “Parade” dress.

These things matter so much because Funny Girl is hardly the greatest story ever told. Having scrubbed away any of the specificity that would ground this in biography, it plays like a fast-and-loose fairy tale in which very little happens (a homely girl becomes famous on account of her wit and meets a charming man along the way)… until a lot happens halfway through the second act, mostly by way of exposition (Fanny’s mom shows up to reveal her inexplicable knowledge of years-long duplicity and its various motivations in the span of about two minutes).

Contrary to customary musical structure, Act II fails to resolve any central yearning or dilemma established for its protagonist in Act I. Her big “I want” is to be famous, and she gets that before intermission… and then Act II is basically a “but what do I really want?” that only sort of comes to a conclusion by the end.

However, I differ with critics who say it rides or dies on the strength of its star. Stated differently, I disagree as to who the real star is. It’s the song score that makes Funny Girl a show for the ages. These are some of the better entries in the song-and-dance pantheon, and they’re supported by often-clever dialogue (some of it surprisingly risqué) and a narrative core that works the same way that Cinderella reliably does. Rags to riches is a little engine that always can.

It’s just that A Star Is Born (also a Streisand vehicle) does something much more interesting with essentially the same story.

As Brice’s beau Nick Arnstein, Stephen Mark Lukas (Broadway’s understudy for the same role) is sufficiently distinguished and a strong enough singer, but he plays the character as stock, overlooking the nuance that Ramin Karimloo found in Arnstein on Broadway.

Barbara Tirrell makes an Ethel Merman powerhouse of Fanny's mother, a role she understudied in the revival. I’m not sure that it’s written that way or that I’ve ever seen the character quite so keyed up, but the role bends to Tirell’s powerful will. She makes it work. One even wonders whether Tirell’s influence ups the ante in McCrimmon’s feistiness as Brice. They’re a brassy pair, mother and daughter, and the dynamic is easy to buy (even when McCrimmon’s obviously put-on accent isn’t).

But these are the gripes of someone who generally loves Funny Girl and only wishes it could be better. In this touring production, currently playing Orlando's Dr. Phillips Center, the uninitiated have an opportunity to see an overall worthwhile staging of a musical that any theatre fan ought to experience, especially with someone as talented as McCrimmon in the lead. Come for her worthy "Parade" but stay for her even-better "The Music That Makes Me Dance,” the 11 o'clock number in which she absolutely wows. I suspect this tour may be the start of her very own Cinderella story. 

Tickets are available from the Dr. Phillips Center box office (click here), where FUNNY GIRL runs through December 10, 2023. 


What do you think of Funny Girl on tour? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace

Photo Credit: Katerina McCrimmon as Fanny Brice in the National Tour of Funny Girl. Photo by Evan Zimmerman




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