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Chicago by John Olson

Funny Girl
Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow
Paul Anthony Stewart and
Sara Sheperd

It may be one of the great ironies of the musical theatre that vaudevillian and radio comedienne Fanny Brice was eventually eclipsed by the singer-actress who first played her on stage. Though there are some film and audio recordings of Brice's performances, the collective memory of Streisand as Brice—thanks to the film version of this show and Streisand's recordings of Brice songs "Second Hand Rose," "I'd Rather Be Blue" and "My Man"—is far more dominant than knowledge of Brice's performances themselves. That theater companies have avoided producing Funny Girl for the inevitable comparisons to Streisand is obvious. Fanny Brice herself might be reluctant to play Fanny Brice for fear of comparisons to Streisand.

That said, in Broadway actress Sara Sheperd, the Drury Lane has found an actress willing and able to make the part her own. Those who remember Streisand's every inflection and interpretation from wearing out the soundtrack or video recordings will note Sheperd's differences right up front. With a tougher demeanor than Streisand and hair design to make Ms. Sheperd look more like the real thing, Sheperd gives a new and authentic take on the vaudeville star. With that said, director William Osetek makes an admirable effort to revive the show on the merits, which may be slimmer without Streisand than we remember.

Jule Styne's great melodies have never really left us and the lyrics by Bob Merrill are clever and crisp. Fanny gets most of them and Ms. Sheperd handles them all admirably. From the comedy numbers through the ballads, she belts as well as she croons. We get to hear six of the eight songs that were not in the film ("Henry Street" and "Find Yourself a Man" are not performed in this production). In Sheperd's hands, we're reminded that "The Music That Makes Me Dance" is as good a torch song as Brice's "My Man," which replaced it in the film version of Funny Girl. There's also the catchy duet for Fanny and Nick, "I Want to Be Seen with You Tonight," as well as Rose and Eddie's comedy number "Who Taught Her Everything?"

Beyond the score, though, is the rather talky book by Isobel Lennart (a successful screenwriter of the '40s, '50s and '60s) that's heavy on backstage clichés and light on character development—even for Fanny, who seems to be about nothing more than her love of performing and her obsession with husband Nick Arnstein (Paul Anthony Stewart). Lennart's men are particularly two-dimensional and aren't helped by the wooden performances of Stewart as Arnstein and Marc Grapey as impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. Jameson Cooper, who boasts a solid singing voice and considerable stage presence, does much better as Fanny's pal Eddie Ryan. As Fanny's mother Rose, Catherine Smitko makes a great wise-cracking Jewish mom without descending into stereotypes.

The ensemble of eight executes the snappy vaudeville-inspired dances of Matt Raftery with precision, and Styne's score is sung winningly by the ensemble and principals, though sometimes conducted at sluggish tempi by music director Ben Johnson. Costumes by Elizabeth Flauto capture the looks of the 20th century's first few decades and for the production numbers suggest the glamour of a real Ziegfeld Follies production. Jack Magaw's set is most literal in its depiction of Fanny's dressing room—placed far stage left on the apron. Minimal sets are used within the main proscenium area where the primary action, suggested here as in the film, are meant to be Fanny's memories of her life before and with Nick.

We can applaud Osetek and his team (Gary Griffin is co-credited with Osetek for the production conception and David New is acknowledged as Associate Director) for returning to the piece's roots and delivering a musical biography of Fanny Brice as if Ms. Streisand never existed. They may have revealed, though, that the reasons Funny Girl has been seldom revived go beyond the difficulty of comparisons to Streisand and the fearless way she made such a star turn out of a dramatically underwritten character. Funny Girl as a piece of musical theater writing is a better than average musical of its era, thanks to the Styne-Merrill score, but not in the same league as Fiddler, Hello, Dolly! or other classics that debuted in the early 1960s. If audiences go to appreciate the musical numbers as performed by Sheperd and company, they'll have a good enough time.

Funny Girl will be performed through March 7 at the Drury Lane Oakbrook, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, IL. For reservations, phone the box office at 630-530-0111,Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000, or buy online at www.drurylaneoakbrook.com or www.ticketmaster.com.


Photo: Johnny Knight

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-- John Olson



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