PittsburghLIVE.com - CLO carries on strong season with 'Funny Girl'

Ana Gasteyer delivers a strong performance as Fanny Brice Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera

By Alice T. Carter
Thursday, July 24, 2003

Gambler Nick Arnstein might have had his ups and downs. But so far this summer, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera is holding nothing  but aces. It's the audiences that are the real winners, though. The production of "Funny Girl" that opened Tuesday as the fourth offering of the six-show season has dealt them a perfect hand.

The pluses begin with Isobel Lennart's dependable book that chronicles funny girl Fanny Brice as she rises from eager, aspiring performer to celebrated Ziegfeld comedienne. Running in tandem with that is her disastrous gob-struck attraction to, and marriage with, suave gambler and con-man Nick Arnstein.

The tale begins in 1923 as Brice the star waits for Arnstein to return from prison. It then flashes back to her start in 1910 in Keeney's Music Hall.
In the capable hands of Ana Gasteyer as Brice and Robert Cuccioli as Arnstein it's a solid, bittersweet adult tale of two people who are simultaneously ideal for, and damaging to, each other.

Gasteyer is best known for her six years on "Saturday Night Live," so the casting sounds at first like a marketing strategy. But Gasteyer's talents extend beyond her abilities as a funny girl who can sell a joke.  Not much of a dancer - although she waltzes prettily in "Henry Street" - she gives us a deeply realized Brice who's feisty, outspoken and resilient, a driven career woman who also longs to be a wife and mother. What's pleasantly surprising is that she also can belt out Bob Merrill and Jule Styne's familiar score, bringing her character's strength as well as her strong, melodic voice to the show's big songs - "People" and "Don't Rain on My Parade" - and giving a torchy simmer to less-well-known numbers - "The Music That Makes Me Dance" and "Who Are You Now?" She does it all while decked out in a splendiferous style parade of expensive-looking period costumes supplied by Goodspeed Musicals.

Gasteyer and Cuccioli connect affectionately in scenes as well as songs such as "You Are Woman, I Am Man" and "I Want to Be Seen With You." Cuccioli's Arnstein is charming and warmly engaging, although in early  scenes he appears oddly uncomfortable and stiff for a man of the world. There's also a distinct sadness about him that makes him appear more hapless and therefore more sympathetic.

Surrounding and supporting them are a rock-solid company of accomplished performers contributing three-dimensional interesting characters. Among
the most noteworthy are Diane Findlay's distinctive performance as Mrs.Brice that shows us from whence cometh Fanny's backbone and assertiveness;   Jan Neuberger's good-natured meddling as Mrs. Strakosh; Paul Palmer's blunt and pragmatic Tom Keeney. Tim Hartman transforms hard-headed producer Florenz Ziegfeld into a delightfully believable old softie, and Jim Walton offers a low-key performance as Fanny's oft-overlooked, longtime friend Eddie Ryan.

Choreographer Michael Lichtefeld puts the ensemble through its paces in a rousing tap rendition of "Rat-tat-tat-tat." Director Richard Sabellico knows when to let us linger on a moment and when to push ahead. Scenic Designer Michael Anania provides a dazzling progression of lavishly painted drops and carefully selected set pieces. Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera has given what is arguably one of the best musicals ever written for a female performer a production that realizes its potential.

Alice T. Carter
Images and text copyright 2003 by The Tribune-Review Publishing Co.