CLO mines the melodrama from 'Funny Girl'
Pittsburgh, Pa. Wednesday, July 23, 2003
By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

People ...
People who need people ...
Are the luckiest people ...
In the world.
Yeah? Well, what exactly does that mean?
On the surface, it doesn't make much sense. After all, everybody needs people -- that's the standard faith of the Broadway musical and every other sentimental theatrical genre, especially in the laughing-through-tears category occupied by "Funny Girl."

Or is it crying-through- laughter? Whichever, Fanny Brice is exactly that Pagliacci figure, the pitiable success whose celebrity doesn't fill her up, making her torment satisfying entertainment for those of us who are neither so rich nor successful. So presumably the lyric is ironic, with "luckiest" meant as a bitter acknowledgment of the fragility of happiness. But ultimately, I guess it doesn't matter, because the whole trick of the Jule Styne (music), Bob Merrill (lyrics) and Isobel Lennart (book) musical is the personal triumph of the actor playing Brice. She's the one who makes us believe, and we don't ask any more of her iconic "People" or "Don't Rain on My Parade" than that they express her pain and yearning.

On those grounds, Ana Gasteyer, the Fanny Brice of the CLO revival that opened last night, does just fine. Although best known from her six years of skit comedy and impressions on "Saturday Night Live," she never stoops to yuk it up but concentrates on laying Fanny's emotional insecurities very bare. Her singing is fine but it has an unpracticed naivete which I think makes her torchy songs of yearning even more affecting.

And she has a powerful force against which to play -- Robert Cuccioli, star of "Pajama Game," "Bells Are Ringing" and "Guys and Dolls" the last three CLO seasons. His Nick Arnstein is a bit of a stiff, a charmer who's far less fully written than Fanny, and you wonder early in the show how even Cuccioli can bring him to life. But he does, imbuing Nick with a mysterious, restless passion that provides the sexy force-field Fanny needs as attraction and contrast.

Funny Girl" is a great big show and the CLO flexes its muscles in bringing it off so well. Diane Findlay's tart Mrs. Brice, Jan Neuberger's  intrusive Mrs. Strakosh and Jim Walton's earnest, fleet-footed Eddie lead a capable supporting cast, but I'd like especially to congratulate the energetic CLO ensemble, which is constantly at work as Ziegfeld girls and neighbors, dancing its heart out in the big production numbers that give  us a sense of the Ziegfeld extravaganzas in which Brice starred. By this time in the season, we've begun to spot favorites, like Sarrah Strimel, whose statuesque showgirl is a human presence as well as a decoration.

The sets are many, as required by this lengthy bio-musical tale of Fanny's journey from feisty wannabe to unhappy star. Connoisseurs of CLO openings -- by which I mean, of the occasional glitches which are the evidence of the delicious risk of live theater -- were particularly gratified Tuesday by a wayward backstage imprecation that slipped out over the sound system. It's already part of CLO lore.

But such glitches are simply the exceptions that prove the professionalism with which CLO mounts big, complex shows in just a week's time.

"Funny Girl" isn't one of the great musicals. It doesn't send you tap dancing or vocalizing up the aisle, brimful of melody and rhythm. Nor does it provide emotional catharsis. But it does take you on a visit to the backstages of yesteryear, as well as a melodramatic personal journey that is glancingly tragic if not tragedy itself.  And in taking us on that long, 2 3/4-hour journey, Gasteyer gradually  turns Fanny's impossibly mercurial, self-defeatist antics into a source of our affection. Needing people is what it's all about.

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