Not-so Funny Girl

Reviving old musicals is hard work. Those antiquated Broadway warhorses are filled with outdated politics, sentimental songs and flat-out melodrama. It takes a good deal of vision to pull one of these "classics" from the shadows of theatrical purgatory, where nothing ever changes, into the uptown glow of "fresh," "new" and "wildly exciting."

Certainly it's possible. The acclaimed revival of Carousel proved that a winsome old musical about a wife-beating criminal could be reimagined with a more contemporary aesthetic. Even Peter Pan is enjoying a renovation (they've taken out the possibly offensive Indian song).

Still, more often than not, revivals disappoint.
And such is the case with Stages' rendition of the Jule Styne and Bob Merrill classic Funny Girl. It's not that the story is offensive or full of clumsy politics. In fact, the musical, which is based on performer Fanny Brice's life, is a feel-good, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, all-American tale. Brice was an ugly duckling chorus girl from Manhattan's Lower East Side who eventually became one of Ziegfeld's most famous headliners. The musical tells the story of her rise to fame and the sacrifices she made along the way. The role made quirky, fast-talking, joke-telling Barbra Streisand an overnight star.

The music is good, too. Its featured songs, "People" and "Don't Rain on My Parade," were so love-worn back in the sixties and seventies that every skeezy piano-bar singer from L.A. to New York City could quaver out some sort of version of these tunes. Most anyone over the age of 30 can hum a bar.

There's even a contemporary love story. Fanny's tall, dark and gorgeous gambler of a husband, Nick Arnstein, can't get over the fact that she is more successful and makes more money than he does.

So what's wrong with this picture? Good as this decades-old play is, something vital is missing from director Rob Bundy's production.

Perhaps it's that Bundy has inexplicably relied too heavily on some of the original production ideas (from the movie anyway) rather than reinventing the play bottom up. Though he argues that his is a scaled-down "up close and personal ... warehouse production," some of the costumes, some set pieces and even some of the blocking bear an uncanny resemblance to the movie version. Act One, Scene One: Barbra's Fanny wears a leopard skin coat. Holli Golden, who plays Fanny at Stages, also wears a leopard skin coat. In the love scene, both Barbra and Holli wear iris colored chiffon dresses and both women twirl girlishly around a lamppost while singing "People." These niggling irritations are worth mentioning only because they are indicative of a deeper directorial problem in the Stages production. Bundy has simply failed to spin something new from this old play. And since the original was so terrific, why drag stuff up from the already-been-done pile, if you aren't going to find something new to say about it?

Streisand has so completely defined the role that reinventing it must be next to impossible, though Golden tries. But Golden, a tiny, blue-eyed beauty, is frankly too conventionally pretty to make Fanny's gawkiness believable.Even more dis-appointing is the absolute absence of any sort of chemistry between Fanny and Arnstein (David Grant), the man for whom she is willing to sacrifice most everything, including her beloved career. They barely look each other in the eye as Nick seduces Fanny with the admittedly giggly but charming song "You Are Woman, I Am Man." In fact there is never any glimmer of genuine joy when they are in each other's presence. And while both Grant and Golden have perfectly fine voices that bear up under the weight of some fairly difficult music (Streisand makes it look so easy), they bring nothing that is thrilling, heart-breaking or in any way moving to these potentially powerful songs.

The chorus, which consists of only three men and three women, can't create a sound big enough to snap the music into life. And the unfortunate acoustical effect of setting the orchestra (which consists of only four players) on the left side of the theater, creates moments for half of the audience in which the singers are overpowered by the woodwinds.

There is one terrific number in the show. Jonathan McVay, as Fanny's friend Eddie Ryan, and Peg Glazer, as Fanny's mother, are the two best things about this production. When Act Two gets under way with their duet "Who Taught Her Everything?" -- in which the two who love Fanny most remember all they have taught her -- the entire stage lights up with energy.

Unfortunately the excitement starts and ends with this song.
The production is disappointing indeed. Most anybody who enjoys musicals would jump at a chance to see Funny Girl live. But given the version up at Stages, it might be better to rent the movie. It's a whole lot cheaper and Barbra Streisand is still really hilarious.

Funny Girl runs through January 3 at Stages Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. 527-8243. $10-$30.

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Lee Williams