Funny Girl opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1964. The show, which received eight Tony Award nominations but won none (losing out to Hello, Dolly! for Best Musical), further extended the fame of young Barbra Streisand as she made her second Broadway appearance. As Streisand also successfully performed the role of Fanny Brice in the film version of Funny Girl, and the stage show has never been revived on Broadway, Streisand remains the representation of Fanny Brice to millions of people. But there is room in our collective consciousness, in my opinion, for the impressive and memorable performance by Ana Gasteyer, now appearing in the Pittsburgh CLO production of Funny Girl. Gasteyer has the look, the comedic and acting talents, and the voice to solidly hold her own as the star of this show. It is icing on the cake that she is surrounded by supporting players and ensemble members who are equally impressive.
The story of Funny Girl is the heavily fictionalized account of legendary Jewish comedic actress/singer Fanny Brice, who appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies, other stage shows, in films and eventually on radio until her death in 1951. The musical focuses on Brice's rise to fame on stage and her romance with Nick Arnstein. Brice became hugely popular due to her limber physical comedy, her elastic facial expressions, and her beautiful singing voice. Even with the "poetic license" taken by Isobel Lennart's libretto, a fair view is presented of the kind of woman and the kind of performer Brice was.
Ana Gasteyer is best known as a cast member on television's Saturday Night Live. She has also appeared on Broadway in The Vagina Monologues and The Rocky Horror Show, and Off-Broadway most recently in David Lindsay-Abaire's Kimberly Akimbo. Gasteyer is a graduate of Northwestern University where she studied voice and she pulls together all of her talents to bring a funny, cheeky, forthright, and charming character to the stage. Though occasionally the physical comedy seems more awkward than limber, Gasteyer has the rubber face to go with the quick witted delivery to be a real comedienne - no acting needed there. And her singing is strong and beautiful (with a big belt even Seth Rudetsky must love). Her highly anticipated "I'm the Greatest Star," "People," and "Don't Rain on My Parade" do not disappoint - all are delivered wonderfully. She shows the performer side of Brice as well as the more modest side of her off stage personality. Gasteyer really delivers here, and makes one hope for more musicals in her future.
As Nick Arnstein, Robert Cuccioli (Broadway's Jekyll & Hyde) is handsome, charming, and as usual, he seems totally comfortable in this role. After three previous romantic lead roles for the CLO, he has shown how well he can play these parts - but I'm hoping for a return next season in a role with a little more edge, or maybe a lot (perhaps those at the CLO will read the ballots I've been stuffing the "What do you want to see next season?" boxes with - all with a checkmark next to Sweeney Todd). Arnstein is no angel, but the limited view we receive through this musical doesn't really offer much opportunity for Cuccioli to do more than look good and sing well, which he does quite nicely. A lone quibble might be the lack of strong chemistry between Gasteyer's Brice and Cuccioli's Arnstein, but this doesn't bring down a production with much going for it.
A true standout in this production is the talented Jim Walton (Broadway revivals of 42nd Street, The Music Man and the original cast of Merrily We Roll Along). As Fanny's friend and stage co-star Eddie Ryan, Walton is astounding. He dances and sings beautifully, and is so natural, you might think he was making it up as he goes along. What a treat to see this talented actor in this production.
Other supporting actors also turn in admirable performances: Diane Findlay (Mrs. Brice), Jan Neuberger (Mrs. Strakosh), and Tim Hartman (Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.). And from the hugely talented ensemble (the CLO really can pick 'em) come two performances that must be mentioned. Eric Hatch's athletic turn during the "Cornet Man" song is a standout, and Jason Coll's truly sensational singing as the Ziegfeld Tenor in "His Love Makes Me Beautiful" is breathtaking. I have heard Coll's wondering piano playing, and I know he has earned accolades as writer and director of several CLO "Gallery of Heroes" shows (this is a program of musicals based on the lives of noteworthy persons produced for students), but I had never heard him sing. I can't describe how clear and perfect his voice sounds - this is really a fabulous bonus in this show.
The elaborate sets were originally designed for the 2000 Paper Mill production by Michael Anania, and he has augmented them for this production. All are quite lovely, probably one of the best set designs I've seen for the CLO. From the hotel room to the Arnstein home to the Follies set, all are perfectly designed and presented. Choreography by Michael Lichtefeld is also well done throughout. The orchestra sounds lush and makes glorious music with the Jule Styne score. Richard Sabellico's direction is evenly paced, efficient, and brings all of the pieces of the show together for an overall great evening of theatre.
Funny Girl continues through August 3 at the Benedum Center. For ticket information, stop by the Box Office, call 412-456-6666, or visit www.pittsburghclo.org.
Funny Girl. Music by Jule Styne, Lyrics by Bob Merrill. Book by Isobel Lennart from an original story by Miss Lennart. Choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld. Directed by Richard Sabellico. Musical Director Tom Helm. Lighting Designed by Andrew David Ostrowski. Scenic Design by Michael Anania. Costumes supplied by Goodspeed Musicals.
Cast: Ana Gasteyer, Robert Cuccioli, Jim Walton, Tim Hartman, Jan Neuberger, Paul Palmer, Kathy Lash-Fuller, Terry Wickline, Scott P. Sambuco, Diane Findlay. Megan Nicole Arnoldy, Jason Coll, Eric Hatch, Michael Lusk, Courtney Laine Mazza, Anna McNeely, Garrett Miller, Jo Ellen Miller, Pilar Millhollen, Gavan Pamer, Scott J. Pearson, Gina Philistine, Christina Lynn Phillips, Zachary Prince, Meg Pryor, Angel Reda, Mark Sanders, Eric Daniel Santagata, Sarrah Strimel, Justin Tanner, Will Taylor.