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Fanny

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Fanny
Elena Shaddow and James Snyder.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Watching the City Center Encores! production of Fanny, which plays through Sunday night, you’re keenly aware of how much we’ve gained and lost since the S.N. Behrman–Joshua Logan–Harold Rome musical first opened on Broadway in 1954. We’ve fully shed the last vestiges of traditional operetta as popular entertainment. We’ve abandoned the notion that only certain types of singers should sing certain types of music. And we’ve basically given up on allowing big shows with the biggest emotions to be, well, truly big.

That these concepts come through is the most blissful joy of this production, which has been directed by Marc Bruni, and well as its most crippling demerit. For as good as the show is, and there’s no question that it’s ensconced firmly near the top of second-tier 1950s titles, we don’t seem to be able or willing to do it full justice today.

Adapted by librettists Behrman and Logan and composer-lyricist Rome from a trilogy of plays (and their films) by French auteur Marcel Pagnol, Fanny can be as silly as it is lush, as eye-rolling as it is unabashedly romantic. Its basic story, about a very young girl (the Fanny of the title) whose lifelong love Marius leaves to quench his yearning for the sea after (unwittingly) leaving her with a baby, and all but thrusting her into the arms of the aged entrepreneur Panisse who can care for them both, is beyond old hat these days. Toss in parents for Fanny and Marius, who may have hightailed it straight from the death throes of vaudeville, and you’re looking at what is unquestionably a theatrical artifact.

Yet the work’s deeply sincere writing and construction - which make their presences felt even through David Ives’s typically lean “concert adaptation” - insist that it not be ignored. Hoary (and sometimes hokey) as the central sextet’s troubles may seem, they’re nonetheless genuine.

Rome’s score is likewise the real deal, surging from sensual to sexual to celebratory without missing a beat, whether depicting Marius’s angst-riddled existence on land in “Restless Heart” or the title song, proving Panisse’s optimism in the bouncy “Never Too Late for Love” or “Panisse and Son,” or scaling the heights of tragedy in a few richly musicalized scenes that pit everyone’s opinions, needs, and voices against each other in usually life-or-death terms. Pair it with Philip J. Lang’s expansive orchestrations, which give the songs a unique sound somewhere between the Metropolitan and its Marseilles (and are played ably as ever here by The Encores! Orchestra under Rob Berman’s baton) and you have what would seem to be the makings of a classic.

Except that, at least in 2010 and at least in Bruni’s particular vision, it doesn’t remotely play like one. The reason is simple: Almost everyone treats this as a 2010 musical rather than a 1954 one. That may fly with certain timeless shows from that era (such as Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, and My Fair Lady), but here it keeps everyone frustratingly earthbound.

Bruni has smoothly staged the evening, and with choreographer Lorin Latarro given it a highly presentational look that makes use of principals and ensemble alike, but seldom conveys either the piece’s intimacy or its wide-ranging emotional scope. (The proceedings often feel as two-dimensional as John Lee Beatty’s attractive France-long-ago scenic elements.)

Worse, nearly every performer is at odds with his or her role’s considerable vocal requirements, which demand solidly legit singers and simply don’t get them here. As Marius, Fanny, and Marius’s father Cesar respectively, James Snyder, Elena Shaddow, and George Hearn convincingly embody their characters’ triumphs and stumbles, but sound far too thin in song to express the tickertape parade of colors they require. The roles were originated by the superb vocalists William Tabbert, Florence Henderson, and Ezio Pinza, and with more moderated modern talents come across as almost dangerously flimsy.

Because the music is often subdued in tone, even when matters are at their most serious, only weighty sounds can appropriately carry thoughts and feelings - even microphones can’t aid in that kind of projection. Fred Applegate and Priscilla Lopez fare somewhat better in the lighter roles of Panisse and Fanny’s mother, but their tactics too seem just off-center. They’re building their performances more from analysis than the gut, again not really right for a show about the pleasures and perils, but also the occasional necessities, of living life by impulse.

This production is the 50th for Encores!, and though I haven’t seen anywhere near all of them, the best and the brightest of the ones I have seen have themselves embraced just that mindset. One of the most vivid was The New Moon in 2003, which simultaneously resurrected and reconsidered that classic Oscar Hammerstein II–Sigmund Romberg operetta. Fanny needed that same kind of consideration to be dramatically viable in a time when audiences are storming the doors for Billy Elliot and Mamma Mia!. The show’s writing proves that it contains real potential for equally engaging the heart, head, and ear. But it won’t be unlocked unless it’s approached on its terms rather than ours.


City Center Encores!
Fanny
Through February 7
City Center Mainstage on West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.nycitycenter.org