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One Night with Fanny Brice

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kimberly Faye Greenberg
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The trouble with invoking ghosts is that you can't always control whom they haunt. With his new musical-theatre bio-show, One Night with Fanny Brice, which just opened at St. Luke's Theatre, Chip Deffaa must contend with not just one unruly specter, but two: of both the legendary Ziegfeld Follies comedienne, of course, but also the still-living superstar who rose to fame playing her on both stage and screen. That's ghostbusting of a level that neither writer-arranger-director Deffaa nor his talented but outmatched performer, Kimberly Faye Greenberg, can attain.

Not that many in a similar position would do better, to be fair. But this is courting difficulty in a way that Deffaa didn't with his previous show-biz tributes, like George M. Cohan Tonight! and The Seven Little Foys. Cohan lives on because of his songwriting more than his performing, and the talents of Eddie Foy, Jr., and his family have been more or less lost to time. They allowed Deffaa and his performers a certain freedom of movement and expression.

Brice is different, however. Luminous enough to live on, guided toward immortality in no small part by Funny Girl and its now-and-forever lead Barbra Streisand, she and her story defy easy or innovative refashioning. Every serious musical theatre acolyte knows of Brice's Jewish upbringing, her strong and supportive mother, and particularly her tumultuous relationship with professional gambler and layabout Nicky Arnstein. So coming up with a spin on this that's not only original but vital itself isn't just the primary challenge—it's the only one.

Deffaa covers the expected ground as thoroughly and unimaginatively as if he had outlined his story from bulleted items on a Funny Girl PowerPoint presentation. Oh, he diverges a bit: There are brief diversions into Fanny's first (terrible) marriage, and her post-Arnstein partnership (also terrible) with showman extraordinaire Billy Rose. But otherwise, the work is faithful to a fault, capturing all of the facts of Brice's remarkable career without any discernible magic.

That includes from the songs, as well. Brice lingers through but a handful of numbers, such as "Rose of Washington Square," "Second-Hand Rose," and her iconic torch anthem "My Man," all of which are here. But because she was as much a personality as a singer (if not more of one), she's associated with characters (Baby Snooks) and ideas (blintzes to champagne) in a way she isn't with actual numbers. The Ziegfeld standard "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," for example, or "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows," seem more like filler than flesh.

Few performers could transform this into a top-notch talent showcase, and Greenberg alas is no exception, though in a number of ways she's hardly poor casting. Her resemblance to the real Brice is impressive, if not profound; the bulging cheeks, the tight lips, and the liquidy eyebrows that move independent of the face are all here. So is an ingratiating nature: Greenberg is certainly someone you don't mind hanging out with for a couple of hours.

What's lacking are the killer voice and unimpeachable charisma. Greenberg's singing is firm but restrained, without the bright bite that forces your face into a grin and could plow through full Broadway orchestras back in the pre-amplification era. And though Greenberg comes across as nice, she's not magnetic—you never need to watch her, which is deflating enough for any solo show but especially for one about one of Broadway's most singular stars.

You must at least give Greenberg credit for gumption. Any actress who would openly invite comparisons to not one defining performer of the 20th century, but two, is one who embodies courage the likes on which the theatre can never overdose. But One Night with Fanny Brice doesn't present her to the best advantage, letting her use her natural gifts to create Brice anew, rather than merely mimicking her. For that, Greenberg would need a sparkling, unique show of the kind that, well, used to be written for the likes of Brice and Streisand.

One Night with Fanny Brice
Through May 29
St. Luke's Theatre, 308 West 46th Street
Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes, including one intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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