NEW YORK — “So, nu?” you ask. Does Beanie Feldstein pull it off?
It has taken guts for Feldstein to step into those proverbial shoes and sing and dance in them onstage at the August Wilson Theatre, where director Michael Mayer’s splashy Broadway revival, the first, had its official opening Sunday night. (On Streisand’s 80th birthday, no less.) One admires the pluck — an essential attribute when playing a character whose introductory number is titled “I’m the Greatest Star.” Rather than incandescent, though, Feldstein’s star turn is an earthbound affair, best when she’s executing the comedy aspect of musical comedy, and less compelling at the music part. A better fit was her Minnie Fay in the “Hello, Dolly!” revival that starred Bette Midler.
Not that bad overall, I must add, even if her vocal skills are merely adequate. In a workmanlike vehicle built as a galvanizing showcase for its title character, though, you want to be taken for a ride that leaves you dizzy with the acceleration of such songs as “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” That’s simply the expectation “Funny Girl” sets up, and it’s also simply the case that, no matter how ardently we root for the endearing Feldstein — and we certainly do — that ignition never fully occurs.
So maybe, if you can lower your sights, you’ll find Mayer’s “Funny Girl” to be a pleasant diversion, an entertaining throwback to the heyday of musicals with lavish sets and costumes and show tunes that Mom and Dad (or Grandma and Granddad) cued up nightly on the stereo. This production accomplishes that, with the input of actors including Jane Lynch, a thoroughgoing delight as Brice’s mother — I’m coming to the conclusion that there’s nothing Lynch can’t do — and Jared Grimes as a tap-dancing whiz and Brice’s impossibly faithful friend, Eddie.
Speaking of impossible, Ramin Karimloo is on hand as Nicky Arnstein, the dreamboat who knocks Brice’s bloomers off. In Harvey Fierstein’s new revisions of Isobel Lennart’s original book for the show, Karimloo gets more to do, especially in applying his velvety baritone to added songs in a Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score — a song list that varies significantly from the 1968 movie. Arnstein, a poker player by trade, here gets his own socko second-act solo, the new “Temporary Arrangement,” that’s staged like a number out of “Guys and Dolls,” with a chorus of dancing gangsters.
Yet, even with the tinkering, Arnstein remains a second-tier stock character in a backstage bio-musical focusing on Brice’s rise in the 1920s to comic beacon in the extravaganzas of Florenz Ziegfeld (Peter Francis James, radiating class). The recurring jokes about the disparity in physical beauty between Arnstein and Brice have never struck me as particularly funny. “To tell the truth, it hurt my pride, the groom was prettier than the bride” is a clever lyric (in Feldstein’s “Sadie, Sadie”), but the repeated stress on the theme steals any serious exploration from their relationship. As a result, “Funny Girl” feels as superficial as those gauzy Ziegfeld numbers, expertly choreographed by Ellenore Scott and tap choreographer Ayodele Casel.
Outfitted in progressively more luscious frocks by Susan Hilferty, Feldstein makes a journey from nervy tyro to nervier pro. David Zinn contributes a smart set design, with a central, rounded brick apartment building whose walls part to reveal street scenes, hotel suites and showgirl-filled stages. Comparisons are anathema, sure, but they’re instructive in gauging the effect of Feldstein’s performance amid all the theatrical refinements. While, for instance, you believed outright that Streisand was a star, with Feldstein, your foremost belief is that she believes she’s a star. It’s a distinction with a difference, in that, with this latest Fanny Brice, that powerhouse illusion at times requires more cooperative effort from the audience.
Some useful internal electricity does get switched on in Feldstein for the Follies production numbers, which constitute her best moments. She’s an adorably winning clown in “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” the song that Brice sabotages out of insecurity over her looks (that theme again). In Act 2′s “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” a silly Follies salute to the armed forces, Feldstein emerges in uniform, goofy glasses, thick Yiddish accent and a pair of bagels on her belt. Pointing to her nosh-able arsenal, Feldstein delivers the punchline perfectly. “Onion or poppy seed?” she asks.
Given the pedigree of the brassy “Don’t Rain on My Parade” — one of those killer damn-the-torpedoes anthems that reliably raise heart rates — Feldstein has the immense task of sending the audience into intermission on a literal high note. She does sing her heart out, and if it were just heart that was called for, she might have been a Fanny Brice for the ages.
Funny Girl, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill. Original book by Isobel Lennart; revised book by Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Michael Mayer. Choreography, Ellenore Scott; tap choreography, Ayodele Casel; sets, David Zinn; music direction, Michael Rafter; costumes, Susan Hilferty; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Brian Ronan; orchestrations, Chris Walker. With Toni DiBuono, Debra Cardona, Martin Moran. About 2 hours 50 minutes. At August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St., New York. funnygirlonbroadway.com.