To be clear: Many were absolutely wild for the revival of Funny Girl at the performance this critic attended. The air as the audience took its seats had that big-night Broadway fizziness to it. There was plentiful applause through the show (opening Sunday night at the August Wilson Theatre, booking to Nov. 20), and cheers for Beanie Feldstein, who plays Fanny Brice, alongside Ramin Karimloo as Nick Arnstein, Jane Lynch, who plays Fanny’s mother, and Jared Grimes, a show standout for his sparkling tap routines as Eddie, Fanny’s best buddy and romantic-partner-that-never-is. The company of dancers are, as in so many Broadway shows and especially so this season, the committed heart of the performance.
Sunday’s opening night falls on Barbra Streisand’s 80th birthday. Streisand, of course, originated the role of the ambitious, proudly down-to-earth stage diva Fanny Brice in the original 1964 Broadway production and also starred as her, opposite Omar Sharif as suave gambler Nick, in the 1968 movie.
The show, like the movie, has sumptuous costumes (by Susan Hilferty), it glitters as it should, but it also has a sense of constant strain about it, a story that freezes and never progresses, and a central couple in Fanny and Nick who are baffling rather than scintillating. It’s hard to know what we are supposed to think of them. There is a low-key, serviceable chemistry between Feldstein and Karimloo, rather than a crackling, passionate one, and a relationship that seems transactional rather than romantic from its inception.
Appositely, a bizarrely designed set houses this puzzle of a show. Two sets of stairs on either side of the stage are supposed to signify Henry Street, the neighborhood where Fanny is from, as well as the stairs of the theater where she performs. In the middle of the stage is a doom-emitting brick tower, which must be another building on Henry Street but instead looks like it may hide machine gun snipers. The back of this structure is a hollowed-out interior serving as interchangeable locations, like a fancy restaurant or home. Once that setting is used up, it’s back to facing the forbidding sniper tower, or whatever the hell it is.
The performers negotiate this cluttered stage well enough, but not so much the repetitive impediments of the story. Karimloo and his sculpted torso (we are given more than a peep when he wears an unbelted dressing gown, so thanks for that) plays Arnstein as a guy down on his luck, and so therefore somehow unavoidably beholden to wasting Fanny’s money on schemes and gambling that never come good.
In a witty moment, just as in the film, when they first meet Fanny leaves the story to sing his name as an inner swoon. And he—well, what does Nick Arnstein think of Fanny Brice? Object of fascination? Love? Meal ticket? Whatever, he never seems very attracted to her. His love feels protective, or big brother-ish, at best. He does give her a cute blue egg.
Given the show is a relentless misery ski-run for Fanny and Nick, the pleasure of Funny Girl comes to rest on its company’s more-than-capable shoulders, Ellenore Scott’s company choreography, and Ayodele Casel’s tap choreography, especially for the excellent Grimes. Lynch is fine as Fanny’s mother but not given enough for someone of her comic talents. You can hear the gears grinding scene to scene.
Right from the beginning, the pairing of Fanny and Nick seems a bad idea, and the plot never disabuses itself or us of this notion. We know that opposites attract, but these two cleave hard to their respective signifiers—she the working-class grafter, he the suave gambler and traveler. It doesn’t matter that both Feldstein and Karimloo are charming performers. They seem unsure what they are supposed to be charting here. The idea is each has the kind of “grown-up pride” that “hides all the need inside,” as Fanny sings in “People,” but here they both seem utterly independent. They share a stage but not a relationship. They seem unable to be together, despite the idea of being together seeming, for no apparent reason, a good idea to them.
“People who need people are the luckiest people in the world,” Fanny sings in that famous song—and it sounds like a lament, because she really doesn’t. Nick makes her feel beautiful, she says, but she also, from the beginning, seems to reject all the social norms that say she is not as beautiful as other women. The story never unpacks its own contradictions—around what Fanny does or doesn’t feel about beauty, about her professional and domestic ambitions, about Nick’s motives, about what draws him to Fanny in the first place, about what they feel or do not feel for each other—or explains them.
Fanny wants fame but not as much as she wants her marriage to work, making it clear right to the end she would give up the stage if she has to. But this doesn’t square with her desire to act, perform, or that life she so fervently wants. Yes, she can and should contain multitudes, but the musical never makes it clear how.
Fanny protests to Florenz Ziegfeld (Peter Francis James) that she wants a personal life above a career. That’s why she follows Nick to New York at a key moment—and she will make it happen as a relationship in the same manner as she has her performance career by sheer force of will, as she makes clear in “Don’t Rain on my Parade.”
Without a tangible relationship between Feldstein’s Fanny and Karimloo’s Nick, the show listlessly orbits the general idea of them not being such a great pairing for over two and a half hours. Fortunately, there is Grimes, and glitzy song-and-dance sequences to fill in what is otherwise a dreary relationship storyline that feels low on stakes, emotional import, and which we spy from the outset as inevitably doomed.
Feldstein seems too much of a junior partner to Karimloo—a sassy ingenue rather than wry diva. Streisand is obviously an intimidating shadow to operate under, and comparisons are unfair but inevitable given the iconic nature of the role and its foundational star. Feldstein’s singing matches her incarnation of Brice, in being questioning, tentative, and wide-eyed. She nails the big songs but more restrainedly than many might expect. The numbers need more. She does not have the voice for this.
The show feels like a series of rigorously executed set-pieces—with this person going there and that person going here, deep breaths, are we all standing in our places? Great!—rather than flowing story. Its best scenes showcase Feldstein and Karimloo’s lively combined comic energy, most visible in a nervous energy-filled dinner scene when he somehow flips from floor to sofa, and when they beautifully sing “You Are Woman, I Am Man” (which is wittily redirected to give Fanny power).
Generally, however, they seem beached and static as a couple. He sees a poker game as more important than her opening night and is furious with her when she financially helps him. There are dry oil wells and phony bond deals, and finally jail. The show leaves the audience with the problem of not really having anyone to cheer for, or castigate. They are clearly an incompatible couple, and we are forced to spend an evening with them, not making any sense of their union. They have a child whose presence is passingly alluded to. Nick is not a crook, just weak; Fanny is not an overbearing partner, just loyal. And there we have it, over and over again.
Then there is the puzzle of Funny Girl and the issue of “beauty.” Henry Street neighbor Mrs. Strakosh (the excellent Toni DiBuono in this 2022 revival) is the first to trash Fanny’s looks, and you think: why? What is wrong with Fanny’s looks? Similarly, in the film of Funny Girl, Barbra Streisand looked wonderful, and so it was always a stretch that two physical aspects of Fanny—her nose and skinny legs—were proposed as attractiveness-disqualifying.
In this 2022 revival, for the first few minutes of Funny Girl, and in one routine in particular, Feldstein’s shape is implicitly made out to be the same unspoken disqualifier, as she looks so different from the other (thinner) female dancers on stage, who at first sneer at her. However, as in Streisand’s Funny Girl, Feldstein’s Brice addresses herself right at the beginning: “Hello, gorgeous!” while looking into the mirror. She says it like she means it, as she should.
Yet the show is down on her looks. Despite the “Hello, gorgeous” self-affirmation, Fanny makes clear to Nick he makes her feel beautiful—which trumps all the negatives she’s imbibed over the years from others. This affirmation he offers seems huge for her, yet she also doesn’t seem that overtly tortured by her looks. Why is she so beholden to Nick affirming her looks if she affirms them herself? Perhaps men reassuring women of their own aesthetic value seemed charming in days of yore. In the context of Funny Girl staged for now, it sounds witless and cringing.
It’s not the only thing about Funny Girl that feels lost in time. It also seems odd that much of the second half centers on Nick’s shame over all his money-losing, as well as characters including Fanny herself remarking how she should accommodate his weaknesses (emotional and economical).
“What did I do for you, darling? What did I give you that you couldn’t have gotten for yourself?” Nick asks Fanny at the end of Funny Girl.
A daughter, the gift of a blue egg, Fanny says, “And you made me feel almost... sort of... beautiful.”
“You are beautiful,” he says.
There it is again, the beauty thing flaring up without a consistent story thread underpinning it, and just as has been happening for the last few hours, a bizarre narrative impasse is resolved by a song, in this case a show-closing reprise by Fanny of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
Streisand’s “My Man,” which closes the film, gives the plot its proper, hardened-diva closure and is the better choice of song. However, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is the traditional closer for the stage musical and is belted and applauded and cheered wildly as expected, but it also—sadly like a lot in Funny Girl 2022—rings hollow.