Story: Fanny Brice, a homely young Jewish woman from the Lower East Side of New York City in the early 20th century, is determined to succeed in show business despite her lack of head-turning looks. With considerable faith in her voice and comic skills, she auditions for a role with impresario Florenz Ziegfeld and His Follies on Broadway.
Against the odds, she becomes a hit, especially with a well-known gambler and entrepreneur named Nicky Arnstein. The dashing Arnstein and the popular Fanny become an unlikely duo until Arnstein’s penchant for risk-taking puts their marriage and financial security in jeopardy.
Highlights: Funny Girl, based upon the life of legendary Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, opened on Broadway in 1964 and garnered an armful of Tony Award nominations, losing out to that year’s big winner, Hello, Dolly. It made a star of a youthful Barbra Streisand, who went on to win an Oscar in the title role four years later.
Stray Dog Theatre artistic director Gary Bell, an avid student of theater as well as a considerable creative talent, has mounted the first professional production of Funny Girl locally, if memory serves, since The Muny last performed it in 1997 and only the second since 1984. Lindsey Jones has the look and feel for the title role and, carried on her strong voice, Stray Dog’s Funny Girl offers a dutiful look at this unusual rags-to-riches story, circa World War I.
Other Info: The true star of this production, actually, is Rob Lippert’s imaginative and industrious set design. As Stray Dog notes in its program, the troupe focuses on a single set element around which it builds each production. In this case, a Ziegfeld Follies-style staircase is employed to great effect, anchoring elements such as a train station, a saloon and Fanny’s opulent Long Island home, among others.
Much of the strength of this particular rendition is in its technical aspects. That appealing set is augmented by some judicious lighting provided by Tyler Duenow, which plays up the theatrical aspects of the Ziegfeld Follies. Costumes designed by Bell, who also directs this production, capture the sassy flair of the Ziegfeld dancers as well as the dapper attire preferred by Arnstein and the frumpy dresses favored by Fanny’s mother and her neighborhood pals.
Problems, though, exist elsewhere. There seems to be a lack of real chemistry between Jones and Jeffrey Wright, who plays the suave, sophisticated Arnstein. So much so, in fact, that one struggles to discern why there would be a romantic attraction between the two at all.
Another unfortunate problem on opening night was the ‘shaggy’ sound to the band directed by Chris Petersen. Usually a Stray Dog staple of strength, this combo sounded strained and flat too often, limping behind the troupe rather than propelling it forward. Musicians performing include Andrew Gurney on acoustic bass, trumpeter Andrew ‘A.J.’ Lane, Bob McMahon on drums and percussion, Gabe Newsham on reeds and Harrison Rich also on reeds.
Jones handles the musical’s two signature tunes, People and Don’t Rain on My Parade, in appealing fashion, particularly the second one that brings the first act to a rousing conclusion. Wright ably lends his smooth baritone to the penultimate Act I number with Jones, You Are Woman, I Am Man.
Laura Kyro is best among the supporting players as Fanny’s loyal mother and Lynda Levy Clark shines as the busybody Mrs. Strakosh. Zach Wachter is well intentioned as Eddie Ryan, a guy who has a thing for Fanny, despite her oblivion. Michael Monsey is the frequently exasperated Ziegfeld.
Members of the ensemble, who get a good workout on the diminutive Tower Grove Abbey stage courtesy of choreographer Zachary Stefaniak’s routines, include Angela Bubash, Eileen Engel, Corey Fraine, Mike Hodges, Emily Johnson, Rachel Kuenzi, Kendra Moore, Brendan Ochs, Kelvin Urday and Sara Rae Womack. Others contributing to the cast include Michael Wells, Lynda Waters and Jan Niehoff.
Those two well-known songs written by Jule Stein and Bob Merrill remain the best parts of Funny Girl, which features a book by Isabel Lennart, a half century later. Hopefully Bell can tighten this production up a bit to make Funny Girl more appealing to a 21st century audience.
Musical: Funny Girl
Company: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: July 30, 31, August 1, 2, 7, 8, 9
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 865-1995 or www.StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb