by Martin Denton
©(photo by Jerry Dalia)
Kritzer with Mark McKay Lusk (left) and Robert Cuccioli
in scene from Funny Girl
by Martin Denton
April 7, 2001
Paper Mill Playhouse's new production of Funny Girl is the spring's most delightful surprise--a lavish, tuneful, they-don't-make-'em-like-this-anymore sort of musical comedy. Thanks to the very famous Barbra Streisand film, we think of Funny Girl as a star vehicle. But, as this marvelously entertaining revival proves, it's a surprisingly well-made piece, with exciting production numbers and a quartet of strong supporting roles that bolster the title role most effectively. Kudos to Robert Johanson, Paper Mill's artistic director, for staging the show so skillfully and lovingly, and for casting it with such top-notch talent.
As a reminder, Funny Girl is a mostly-true account of the early life and career of Fanny Brice, the ugly duckling Jewish comedienne/singer who defied the odds to become the star of the Ziegfeld Follies. The show's libretto, by Isobel Lennart, traces Fanny's life from 1910, when the ambitious but obscure teenager gets her first "break" in Keeney's Music Hall, to 1923, when Fanny, now the reigning queen of the Follies, must confront the end of her marriage to gambler Nick Arnstein. The story is told in brief but effective scenes and emotive songs and lavish production numbers that depict the sad arc of Fanny and Nick's relationship, doomed from the start by her tenacity and his pride.
Director Johanson has cast a relative unknown named Leslie Kritzer in the central role of Fanny. It's a gutsy move that pays off handsomely. Kritzer, whose previous credits include the recent off-Broadway Godspell, is a petite lady with a big, gorgeous voice and a personality to match; reminiscent, actually, of Garland more than Streisand. And if she can't quite erase our (indelible) memory of Streisand singing her signature tune "People," she acts the heck out of the role and claims it entirely as her own. Her performances of some of the less-well-known numbers, such as "Cornet Man" (with unexpected shadings of Louis Armstrong) and "Who Are You Now?" are stunning. And her final scene, in which Fanny and Nick bring their troubled relationship to its end, is magnificent--we really feel what Fanny is losing here. Kritzer has what it takes to be a big star on Broadway, and she deserves her own show to do it in.
Robert Cuccioli (Jekyll and Hyde) is terrific as Nick Arnstein, offering an appealing, sympathetic portrayal of this weak but attractive man. He takes full advantage of his best opportunity in the show's score, the sensational "You Are Woman," more than holding his own as virile straight man to Kritzer's hilarious mugging as the starry-eyed Fanny. The other main supporting roles are equally well-realized here: Diane J. Findlay is dry and lovable as Fanny's earthy mother Rose, Marie Lillo is wickedly funny as the obnoxious but well-meaning neighbor Mrs. Strakosh, and Robert Creighton is eager and energetic as Eddie Ryan, the young man who hires Fanny for her first job. Creighton and Findlay are delicious in the charming "Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?" and, with Lillo, have a grand time delivering the witty "Find Yourself a Man." Creighton also dances the lead--winningly--in "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat," the giddy World War I-flavored Follies number that stops the show in the second act.
Indeed, it's the two Follies numbers that really prove explosive here. Johanson and his choreographer, Michael Lichtefeld, have staged them with imagination, style, and taste. "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat" features a knockout line-up of doughboys and doughgirls tapping out a rhythm so intense that the Germans don't stand a chance against it--all as backdrop, by the way, to some superb Kritzer clowning as a Jewish-accented private ("The Kaiser runs a block away/When they tell him here comes Schwartz"). "His Love Makes Me Beautiful," Fanny's Follies debut in Act One, is sumptuous and hilarious, with Michael Anania's lacy, improbable dream of a wedding cake set and David Murin's impossibly exotic costumes recreating the gawdy splendor of the Ziegfeld era with blissful ingenuity.
The ensemble (a generous twenty-two singers, dancers, and actors) is grand. And Bob Dorian (from American Movie Classics) lends a touch of class and authority as Ziegfeld himself.
Copyright © 2001 The New York Theatre Experience, Inc.