NEW YORK — When Lea Michele launches missile-like into “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” she doesn’t just bring down the house. She brings down the whole darn block.
Need is a good word for Michele and her Brice. It’s no secret that the actress has made a virtual side hustle out of auditioning for the role, all the way back to the first season of “Glee,” when she sang “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and revealed a Barbra Streisand magnitude of chutzpah. In “People,” Fanny sings about letting one’s grown-up pride hide all the need inside. Her portrayal, a role inherited this month from Beanie Feldstein, stands in counterpoint to Fanny’s assertion. Michele wears the need, grandly, on the outside.
In the wake of some punishing reviews, Feldstein left the production at the end of July, two months earlier than she had previously announced. Before Feldstein’s departure, producers had entered into negotiations for Michele to replace her. Julie Benko, Feldstein’s standby, took over the role for the month of August, and continues in the show, playing Fanny on Thursdays.
That will to stardom, that ineffable self-belief, is the key to Fanny’s code, and Michele cracks it. What you’re reminded of at this stage of this revival, directed by Michael Mayer, is that “Funny Girl” is a vehicle with a cast of dozens but only one vital role. You could have the most winningly tough-minded Mrs. Brice (and you do in the other new cast member, Tovah Feldshuh, replacing Jane Lynch) and the handsomest Nick Arnstein (and you do in Ramin Karimloo). But without a Fanny Brice who shakes the building with mellifluous need, you may as well stay out in the parking lot.
This is “Funny Girl’s” strength and “Funny Girl’s” curse. The book by Isobel Lennart, refreshed by Harvey Fierstein, is standard-issue celebrity biography, recording Fanny’s inexorable rise in the Follies of Florenz Ziegfeld (a finely patrician Peter Francis James), and centering on the rocky romance of Brice and Arnstein. The ride up with Fanny in Act 1 is gleeful, but the climb back down in Act 2, after the shine has worn off the marriage, plunges the show into dreary melodramatics.
Mostly, the dialogue scenes exist as a kind of waiting room between Styne’s sumptuous ballads and up-tempo marches. In support, Jared Grimes continues to be a heel-and-toe-clicking asset as long-suffering Eddie, who wins the night with his quicksilver tap licks but can’t get the time of day from Fanny.
Mayer and his design team don’t add much visual interest: The usually reliable costume designer, Susan Hilferty, creates some flapper-era looks for Brice that aren’t sufficiently clownish when they should be, or chic when they must be. And on second viewing, David Zinn’s set seems less a testament to ingenuity than to budget constraints. A little fine-tuning, too, should be addressed by sound designer Brian Ronan and music supervisor Michael Rafter for the Act 2 novelty number, “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” as the orchestra pretty much drowns Michele out.
The homage to Streisand, Michele’s acknowledged idol, is apparent in the actress’s accomplished Noo Yawkese (she is, after all, a Jersey girl) and certainly on display in the show’s comic moments. Some grumbling about Michele’s comedic chops accompanied the news this summer of her casting, but the gripes turn out to be overblown.
Michele may be conventionally pretty, but she is still convincingly self-deprecating in “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” the faux Ziegfeld number that Fanny sabotages. And she has particular fun with the witty stream of consciousness in the Act 1 seduction song, “You Are Woman, I Am Man.” And Karimloo, who at one point reveals a torso out of a fitness product infomercial, proves a polished partner.
Face it, though: This is the Lea Michele Show, and her presence has the effect of setting the playhouse in order. “I’m the Greatest Star,” with its pulse-quickening affirmation of a young woman of enormous appetites and gifts, is delivered now with the full-throated confidence that leads easily to the conclusion that, yup, this is a star. Equally potent are Fanny’s torchy “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” and a finale in which Fanny pulls herself out of an emotional cellar, proof of the preternatural resilience that defines a mortal who thrives in the limelight.
The overeager audience starts cheering before Michele can get out even the first notes of her songs, and that’s a shame. Because it’s thrilling to hear her scale each of these signature challenges from start to finish. When she’s out there onstage, framed in azure light and singing with deep passion and total commitment, she really is a rhapsody in blue.
Funny Girl, music by Jule Style, lyrics by Bob Merrill, book by Isobel Lennart and Harvey Fierstein. Directed by Michael Mayer. At August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52d St., New York. funnygirlonbroadway.com.