Regional Reviews: San Francisco
A First Rate Production of Funny Girl
American Musical Theatre of San Jose opens it 2003-2004 season with a sumptuously stage production of Jule Styne, Bob Merrill, Garson Kanin and Isobel Lennart's Funny Girl at the San Jose Performing Arts Center. It is hard to believe that it's been almost 40 years since I first saw this lavish musical on the Winter Garden stage with the divine Barbra Streisand playing the legendary Fanny Brice. Sydney Chaplin played Nicky Arnstein. The cast I saw included a young Jean Stapleton and Lainie Kazan in the chorus (Lainie was the stand in for Barbra) and Kay Medford played the mother. The musical played a record breaking 1348 performances.
There have been few revivals of this tuneful musical, mainly because it is very hard for anyone to fill Ms. Streisand's shoes and come near her celebrated performance. There was a one night concert in New York on September 23, 2002, for the Actors Fund where many Broadway divas played the role of Fanny (each singing one number from the score). There was also a recent revival in Pittsburgh starring Ana Gasteyer.
Funny Girl is based on a fictionalized account of the life of Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, who sang and danced her way to fame and fortune in the early 20th Century. It also chronicles her tempestuous relationship with embezzler Nicky Arnstein.
American Musical Theatre of San Jose is presenting a bang up production with a great sounding large orchestra, fabulous voices, showy dance numbers and lavish sets. This is a first rate production headed by Rachel Ulanet (Beauty and the Beast on Broadway, Sondheim's Saturday Night at Second Stage, King David, plus many regional and touring productions), who almost reaches the heights of Ms. Streisand in voice and comic acting. She has the correct brassy sound for the role and is a powerhouse in songs like "I'm the Greatest Star" and "Don't Rain on My Parade," and she is quiet and convincing in "People." She gives a crackerjack performance, wisecracking her way through the musical.
Ms. Ulanet is aided by a strong cast. Kevin Gray (last seen as The Engineer in Miss Saigon and has numerous Broadway credits) is excellent as Nicky Arnstein. He adds humanity to the character and you actually feel for his problems. Gray makes a sexy Nicky, and it's easy to see why Fanny would be infatuated with him. He also has good chops in his duets with Ms. Ulanet, especially in "You are Woman." Paul Boesing makes an elegant Flo Ziegfeld, and Brad Bradley who plays Eddie Ryan is great as the energetic hoofer. He is tops in the tap dancing department. Mary Ellen Ashley is wonderful as Fanny's mother. She hits the right sardonic notes in the role.
The AMT production has many great moments, especially the opulent wedding number in the first act with a pregnant Fanny Brice trying to come down the steps while Martin Lewis (a perennial favorite of AMT) as the tenor tries to be serious singing "His Love Makes Me Beautiful." The opening number with four veteran actresses, Mary Ellen Ashley, Diana Torres Koss, Annmarie Martin and Deborah Black, playing cards singing "If a Girl Isn't Pretty" has wonderful harmony. The "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat" number is pure schmaltz with a great tap dancing routine.
Funny Girl, smartly directed and choreographed by Sam Viverito with sets by three time Emmy Award winner Michael Hooff, plays through September 28 at the San Jose Performing Arts Centers, 255 Almaden Blvd, San Jose. For tickets call 1-888-455-SHOW or 1-408-453-7108 or on line at www.amtsj.org
AMT's next production is On the Twentieth Century starring JoAnne Worley opening on October 31.