A Star Is Born
After nearly 40 years, Jule Styne and Bob Merrill's Funny Girl still glitters with all its old- fashioned, big Broadway-style razzmatazz. Filled with unforgettable tunes, tap-dancing chorines and sets that fly magically from the rafters, the grand show has everything ever associated with the Great White Way. And Theatre Under the Stars' opulent, spare-no-expense production also has Darcie Roberts in the lead role. The charming performer's enormous awe-inspiring voice goes a long way toward eclipsing Barbra Streisand's long shadow in the title role.
The familiar melodrama, set to some of Broadway's greatest music, is loosely based on comedian Fanny Brice's rise to fame with the Ziegfeld Follies and her rocky relationship with the handsome ne'er-do-well gangster Jules "Nicky" Arnstein. Making Brice's story sound much sweeter than it actually was, Isobel Lennart's book depicts a woman who jumped at the chance to play the clown. In reality, Brice wanted to be a serious actress, only to find herself up against the turn-of-the-century stereotypes that cast her as a naive Jewish funny girl. (Ironically, even though Brice spoke no Yiddish, she's known for the stereotypical Yiddish accent many of her characters affected.) And her love affair and subsequent marriage to Arnstein, which comes off as deeply passionate on stage, was marred by the con man's constant philandering and criminal activities, including a wire-tapping conviction that landed him in Sing Sing.
Still, though the cleaned-up version of Brice's life is not nearly as interesting as the one she lived, the simple story makes a great vehicle for the songs that jam-pack this show. Starting with "I'm the Greatest Star," which immediately establishes Roberts's formidable vocal skills, the musical tumbles out hit after hit, including "I'd Rather Be Blue," "People," "Don't Rain on My Parade," "Who Are You Now?" and "My Man."
"Roller Skating Rag," from the 1968 film version, has been included in this production to establish Brice's accomplishments as a comedian. Hired to her first job, the eager Brice promises the casting director she can roller-skate, only to bound on stage on opening night with her ruffles flouncing and her skates flying. She's an instant hit, if only because she looks so ridiculous flailing among the line of conventionally pretty chorus girls.
There are few surprises in this production. Conductor Michael Biagi is fun to watch as he practically pounces on every dramatic turn of the score. Michael Anania's sets fly with technical grace and speed, the kind that can be provided only in a theater as well equipped as the Wortham. And the supporting cast, including Michael Piontek's smooth and long-limbed Arnstein and Michael Blake Tapley's fiery, tap-dancing Eddie, is thoroughly competent. But Funny Girl is essentially a one-woman show, and Roberts, under Bruce Lumpkin's direction, shines with comic energy and generates all the vocal brass necessary to pull off these big belting Broadway tunes.
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