By Patrick O’Brien
It isn’t without reason that Funny Girl has rarely seen a significant revival, and no, that reason isn’t Barbra Streisand. Or, at least not necessarily. In the long line of musical star vehicles, Funny Girl is a rickshaw: whoever plays Fanny Brice has to expend a lot of energy to keep everything moving at a decent clip. Otherwise, things slack off, and we find ourselves in the familiar territory of a dutiful biography.
It isn’t wrong that Frances Arnstein Stark and husband Ray — she, Fanny’s daughter, and he, prolific producer—were adamant that her story of unlikely fame and all-too-likely heartbreak be told; he had commissioned a biographer and at least 10 screenwriters before deciding on the musical form. But even 50 years later, it isn’t hard to imagine them watching over the writers at work, protecting—smoothing out—the family legacy.
That sense is alive and well at MadKap Productions’ new production of Funny Girl, where, despite a superb effort from their star, everyone goes about their duty, nothing more and nothing less. Actually, err on the side of “nothing more.”
Yes, the Skokie Theatre is a small space that can’t hit the heights of glamor. (Though G. “Max” Maxim IV’s sets get by with some handsome black-and-white Art Deco, and his projections are subtly fetching and move well.) But this isn’t about production values. This is about energy.
Fanny Brice has a lot of energy that needs to get out, but no one lets her get it out. She bluffs her way out of two-bit vaudeville; galvanizes the staid pageantry of Ziegfeld’s Follies; and becomes a one-woman enterprise. Sally Staats has that energy—Lord, can she chase the clouds away with “Don’t Rain on My Parade” or reach deep inside to connect with ”People” and—but it’s projected at an unreceptive ensemble, who just sort of mill about, even when they’re kicking up their heels. Even the band—reduced from the original Broadway orchestrations, yes, but still—lets some of the big buttons fizzle.
And, as mentioned, when the star vehicle slows, the cracks become more and more apparent. Standout songs aside, Jule Styne’s music and Bob Merrill’s lyrics are capable, but their earnest vaudeville pastiches are nowhere near as interesting as the former’s knowing score for Gypsy. And if it feels like a turn in the plot only exists to turn the plot like in a standard biopic—”The Clown Who Cries”—that’s because Isobel Lennart was the lucky last screenwriter Ray Stark went through.
There’s also near the end a crack in the drama that not even the Starks could smooth over, and doesn’t even make sense in the context of familial duty. Brice’s husband, part-time (full-time?) shnook Nick Arnstein, gets arrested for embezzlement, and Fanny’s mother blames Fanny for emasculating him with her money, driving him into criminal activity. Call it soured sexual politics or call it nonsense; there’s wanting to protect a father’s name, but that doesn’t automatically mean the mother is to blame.
And then there’s a crack that isn’t even in the script, but put there by this production. The musical is meant to conclude with a one-two punch: the eleven-o’clock “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” her torch for Nick held aloft; and then a reprise of “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” as solid an anthem as any to an indomitable spirit. This production concludes with “My Man,” Brice’s actual signature song; “Music That Makes Me Dance” was written as a fond imitation of the former when the rights weren’t available. So rather than conclude on a note of triumph, there’s two torch ballads in a row. Staats sells them for all their worth, but it’s redundant, it does the strong Ms. Fanny Brice a disservice, and it drains the energy out of the final scene’s husband-and-wife reunion. A scene with energy inherent, what with it being rewritten 40times.
There may be some virtues, patiences or indulgences overlooked in compiling these thoughts about Funny Girl, but don’t expect to hear that cornet man blowing any time soon. He’ll be waiting for the next go-around with Ms. Brice, et al, that’ll really blow his lungs out.
MadKap Productions presents “Funny Girl” through October 2nd at the Skokie Theatre, 7924 Lincoln Ave, Skokie. More information and tickets ($39; $34 for seniors, $29 for students) are here.