Review: In Lea Michele, ‘Funny Girl’ Has Finally Found Its Fanny

Though it can be a great vehicle, “Funny Girl” has rarely been a great ride. Even its first-rate Jule Styne songs — “I’m the Greatest Star,” “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” among them — are problematic. Not only are the lyrics, by Bob Merrill, often inane (“I’ll light up like a light”?) but the challenge of the vocal writing that made Barbra Streisand a star in 1964 makes casting anyone else now a nightmare.

And let’s not get started on the book, by Isobel Lennart, which in telling the (mostly fictional) story of the early-20th-century comic Fanny Brice, and her disastrous love affair with the gambler Nick Arnstein, seems to have been assembled from a warehouse of used musical-comedy parts. They do not work well together, however well they work individually.

The revival that opened in April at the August Wilson Theater — its first on Broadway — only made matters worse. Harvey Fierstein’s meddling with the confusing book confused it further by giving Nick (Ramin Karimloo) more to do; nobody cares what Nick does. And Fanny, whom we do care about, was just too much of a reach for Beanie Feldstein, offering a pleasant performance in a role that shouldn’t be. “Without a stupendous Fanny to thrill and distract,” I wrote at the time, “the musical’s manifold faults become painfully evident.”

Lea Michele, who took over the role on Sept. 6, turns out to be that stupendous Fanny. Yes, she even lights up like a light. Both vulnerable and invulnerable, kooky and ardent, she makes the show worth watching again.

She can’t make it good, though. Michael Mayer’s production is still garish and pushy, pandering for audience overreaction. A confetti cannon tries to put an exclamation point on a dud dance. Many of the minor players overplay. The lighting by Kevin Adams would make a rat clap, and the unusually ugly set by David Zinn seems weaponized against intimacy. It looks like a missile silo.

But at least “Funny Girl” now has a missile: a performer who from her first words (“Hello, Gorgeous”) shoots straight to her target and hits it.

It has been a tortuous path to this obviously right and seemingly predestined casting, with decades of false starts involving Lauren Ambrose, Debbie Gibson, Sheridan Smith and others. Feldstein was just another in the long list of misfires; after she ditched the show in a cloud of apparent acrimony — a cloud everyone denied — her standby, Julie Benko, took over.

Benko, who is still the Thursday night Fanny, sings the role very well, so you never worry, as you did with Feldstein, that she might not make it through the songs. Then too, Benko gets closer to the dark heart of the comedy, backfilling its shtick with something like anger. Still, good as she is, her voice and the rest of her performance don’t yet match; she even has a different accent when acting the role than when singing it.

Like Barbra Streisand, Michele brings added depth to her performance. When Michele sings “People,” our critic writes, it’s not a bald statement but a genuine inquiry.Credit…Matthew Murphy

Michele matches throughout. Her voice, an exceptional instrument, is not an ornament but a tool, and she knows how to use it. That in itself is no surprise; she seems to have been trying out for the role since 2009. Over the course of her six seasons as Rachel Berry on “Glee,” she sang most of Fanny’s numbers with exceedingly high polish, if sometimes a powerful whiff of Streisand karaoke. (Rachel’s middle name was Barbra.)

Onstage, though, the Barbraisms are less in evidence. A few are unavoidable, Streisand having in essence rewritten, and improved, some of Styne’s vocal lines. And in general, anyone hoping to make a success of “Funny Girl” has to follow the originator’s template, because it was created for her — you might almost say “on” her, like a couture gown. The songs work (and the scenes nearly do) when a performer can access a manic desperation to succeed, not caring how she comes off or what she loses in the process. Let’s just say that Michele, like her idol, has that access.

What surprised me in “Funny Girl” is that she can also access much more. You need not understand the details of vocal placement to understand that a performer able to belt all of “People” without worrying about switching registers has plenty of bandwidth left over to worry about more important things. When Michele sings the song, it’s not a bald statement but a genuine inquiry: Can Fanny be successful in both love, which means a lot to her, and work, which means more?

And at the end, when life has delivered its unhappy answer, Michele isn’t playing at sadness. A hot mess of tears, she takes her time recovering sufficiently to move into the finale, a reprise of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” It’s a mark of her shaping of the role that she sings it quite differently than she did at the end of Act I, when Fanny is reaching outward to grab the life she wants. Now she’s reaching inward to rescue herself from emotional disaster — a point Michele makes with typical vocal daredevilry in the song’s final heart-stopping phrase.

Unfortunately, you may not hear it. Despite the amped-up vocals, the amped-up audience is often even louder than Michele. (On Tuesday, one of her several mid-show standing ovations was actually mid-song.) You can’t blame fans for their excitement, and at least there’s something worth being excited about here. But it seems to me that the production is reaping the dubious reward of its constant goading and prodding. You can see Michele having to calculate on the fly how and when to resume, or whether to blast right through, unheeded.

Tovah Feldshuh, left, replacing Jane Lynch as Fanny’s mother, brings grit to the role.Credit…Matthew Murphy

In a way, she’s almost too serious for the show; comedy, at any rate, isn’t her (or its) best suit. That’s a problem when the title is “Funny Girl.” Still, when Michele is given a good situation to play, as when Nick seduces her in a restaurant, she gets good laughs. Other times, as in an embarrassing in-joke added post-Feldstein, coyly referring to a song sung on roller skates in the 1968 movie, she looks lost, even as the audience yuks on cue.

I hope she’ll keep burrowing into the role and not give in to the general hysteria. She certainly has allies in that fight: Karimloo, especially as the broken man Nick becomes at the end, does some lovely, quiet work, and Tovah Feldshuh, having replaced the zany Jane Lynch as Fanny’s mother, is so gritty and salty she could turn ice into slush. In the smaller role of Florenz Ziegfeld, Peter Francis James remains a model of dignified restraint.

Charismatic performers make the thing they’re performing disappear. In effect, they replace it; their voice becomes its voice, their skin its story. That Michele makes “Funny Girl” seem better than we know it to be is the wonderful but possibly irreproducible product of the mutual need between an old-fashioned talent on the way up and an old-fashioned musical on the way down. It’s a need like that of lovers, and you know what the song says about them: Despite all evidence, they’re the luckiest people in the world.

Funny Girl
At the August Wilson Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes.

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