Funny Girl is a Rags to Riches Cabaret of Comedy and Drama (4 Stars)

by Johnny Monsarrat

 

Funny Girl, Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Bob Merrill, Book by Isobel Lennart,Scenic Design by Stephen Dobay, Costume Design by Mark Nagle, Lighting Design by Jack Mehler, Sound Design by Charles Coes, Hair and Wig Design by Kurt Alger and Emilia Martin, Production Stage Manager Natalie A. Lynch, Casting by Binder Casting, Associate Producer Tom Amos, Music Direction by Mark Hartman, Directed & Choreographed by James Brennan, runs June 7-19, 2016 at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts. www.nsmt.org

 

Funny Girl is musical theatre based on the broadway show and movie of the 1960s with Barbra Streisand. Will Fanny, an uneducated teenage Jewish girl from a poor upbringing find fame and fortune? Will she live out her dream of starring above the chorus girls in the Ziegfeld Follies? Will she find romance, too?

 

Of course she will, and you'll love to cheer for her, but it's not all comedy. There's drama and music too as Fanny interacts with her mother and extended family, possible suitors, and big name Broadway producers.

 

I have to admit that I love the North Shore Music Theatre. The commute from Boston takes some time, but is worth it. The venue is a miracle of the arts, providing an entire environment of comfort. All their theatre shows are original productions, not touring companies, but they also invite in touring acts on off-days, typically music. Parking is easy, or you can get there and back by commuter rail if you are a damn fool like me (but it is possible).

 

Behind the venue they have a terrace and garden with plenty of room for a nighttime stroll and a bit of privacy. The space is so large that you'll have no problem avoiding a few cigarette smokers to breath in the fresh night air. For the first time I arrived early to have dinner at the Backstage Bistro, a separate building behind the terrace behind the venue itself. You can sit at the bar, or take a table for an all-you-can-eat buffet dinner.

 

The buffet had acceptable variety and taste but more importantly was pure comfort food. That was a great match for my fantasy diet. (I fantasize about dieting while eating whatever I like.) Unlike hotel buffets you'll get real table service, with good speed, and it's astounding how the servers get everyone's checks simultaneously as we must leave and walk downhill to the show. The atmosphere and food are not outstanding or inspired, but enjoyable and social. There is also a Garden Bistro that's open during intermission and some kind of VIP Ambassador's Club that I'm going to try to get into for my next review.

 

Inside, there's great energy in the hallway, where you'll also find alcohol and snacks. The stage is round so that every seat feels close in. I actually saw some empty seats right next to the stage but didn't bother to move up because I had a great view from where I was. As a very tall guy, I'm grateful for the comfortable seating and leg room.

 

Before the show, two emcees thanked the audience and created excitement. Owner Bill Hanney addressed the audience personally with great warmth. He rescued the North Shore Music Theatre from closing in 2009, and looks a bit like Keifer Sutherland.

 

What I'm trying to communicate is that I was having the best time and the show hadn't even started yet, so if you think Beverly is too far to travel, you are missing out.

 

Through no fault of the production, Funny Girl as written doesn't have much of a story, so the experience is better taken as a cabaret of loosely connected song and dance numbers. Sometimes the music matches the story, and sometimes they just perform whatever number Fanny Brice stars in, for example an unrelated song and dance about how American boys are straight shooters in World War I. You've heard Don't Rain on My Parade before, and People. ("People who need people are the luckiest people in the world". Is that really true? Who are the people who don't need people?) I was able to relate to the characters and the show is great woman power but wasn't too girly for me.

 

The main You Go Girl energy of the show comes from Shoshana Bean, who has big shoes to fill. First, Fanny Brice was a real stage star, and Funny Girl is a true story. But then in the 1968 movie Fanny was memorably played by Barbra Streisand, who won an Oscar. The show is not that funny as it is written, but Bean's delivery, playing up a Jewish accent and physically expressing her discomfort is laugh out loud funny. She commits completely to gags such as a "pure" pregnant bride and a "heroic" murderous infantryman to make them connect. In dramatic scenes she succeeds in a difficult situation, drawing empathy from the audience even though Fanny may not completely deserve it. After all, Fanny is stubborn, controlling, impulsive, naive, and arrogant, so she's sometimes not easy to like. But she wants fame so badly that she will even lug a giant helmet hat with feathers across the stage and attempt to wear it, with comic results. That is all communicated and we root for Fanny throughout the show.

 

The remainder of the cast is not given much to do, though kudos to Susan Cella as Ms. Brice, who sews together the split nature of the mother chastising Fanny but also doting on her to Broadway producers, for her comic timing and surprising full split just to show off. Fanny even says at one point in the script that one of her suitors seems like a character out of a book. Yes, there's not much depth.

 

Another star of the show was the staging by Stephen Dobay and choreography by director James Brennan. In every scene in the round, the actors presented themselves to all sides. I studied this closely and found only one time when the actors put their backs to part of the theatre for more than a few seconds. Instead they move about and stroll about, using the entire stage. The sparse staging made scene changes very quick but never left you in doubt about where the action was taking place. The stage sadly no longer rotates but great use is made of a center section that rises up from under the stage and retreats when needed. Over the top costumes by Mark Nagle add to the feeling of seeing a big stage show. A live orchestra drives the mood and a trumpeter even emerges onto the stage to become part of the show. Despite Beverly's location far from metro Boston, and despite the more popular rather than erudite theatre scripts that they choose to produce, the NSMT is one of the best theatre organizations in New England.

 

While I can't fault the production in any way, the script as it is written is the reason I cannot give the show 5 stars. Drama is created by conflict, and Fanny Brice achieves fame immediately and easily in Act One. There's only so far we can be expected to root for someone who has moxie, but is also controlling, and gets everything she wants right away. Why should we care about the problems of a rich white girl? Well, in the 1910s, just having a Jewish person in a starring role was a big deal, I guess. And it was still notable in the 1960s film version, but not anymore today. Fanny's Jewishness does not seem to play much part as nobody comments on it and she does not seem inspired or shaped by her religion.

 

The largest conflicts in the show are caused by well-meaning people, such as Fanny losing a large amount of money and being so nice about it that others are offended. This is your biggest problem, that you're too nice? At one point a tragedy happens but not because of a nasty character choice, but an act of God. Really, nobody is cruel to Fanny outside of the first few minutes when she is called ugly. And speaking of this, the role of the mother confused me. At first she's cruel, but then supportive and proud, and eventually the voice of wisdom in a turning point. Is Fanny close to her mother or neglectful? Both are shown in the play.

 

Sometimes in a true-to-life story, you can't play up the drama, because there was little true-to-life conflict, but actually the script whitewashes some bad history. One of Fanny's courtiers has a lot of prison time before and after he meets her, which is written out, and it's impossible to think that the real life Fanny Brice was so pure of heart in her confrontations, or naive in her blameless falling for possibly the wrong man. Also, the play ends in a weird manner for a comedy/drama as though a year's worth of struggle is demonstrated in a single scene to generate a happy ending, deus ex machina.

 

More importantly, the play covers a decade in Fanny's life, and we get only the highlights. So much happens off stage as months or years pass, a violation of the "show, don't tell" rule, that it keeps us from feeling a sense of urgency or getting deeply into any one turning point. For example, at one point Fanny takes a huge risk involving a train ride. We never see it play out. Cut to a year later. Yet there's time for unrelated dance numbers such as one where Fanny's mother and early instructor feel unattended to.

 

So you can see why I started this review by saying it's more of a cabaret than a story. Don't come for the historical authenticity, to root for the underdog, or to experience the cultural shock of a Jewish woman who finds acceptance. That is all pretty vanilla. Come to Funny Girl instead for the comfort and excellence of the production, and to hear some song and dance numbers. And do arrive early for dinner. I'm glad to give Funny Girl 4 out of 5 stars.

 

Find Funny Girl at the North Shore Music Theatre at www.nsmt.org.