Hello, Gorgeous! A rare, fearless "Funny Girl" has emerged in regional theater.
This little-seen challenging show premiered in 1964, catapulting Barbra Streisand to iconic status and an Oscar for recreating her role in the 1968 film.
Finding a suitable actress to assume Fanny Brice's larger-than-life persona is tricky, let alone endure endless comparisons to Babs.
However, Gary F. Bell, Stray Dog's artistic director, was not intimidated by the difficulties.As director, he has managed a near-impossible task -- mounting a big, splashy, old-fashioned musical on the Tower Grove Abbey's intimate stage, thanks to the talented people he enlisted.
Unable to go big as a spectacle, he trimmed it down to essentials, focusing on the unlikely star's humble beginnings, her Ziegfeld Follies success, and her doomed romance.
Overall, it's a very earnest effort. But the show, unfortunately, is uneven, and that's largely due to some transparent issues with chunky material. The first act is a very long 90 minutes, with the second act an hour.
The production numbers, without frills, were competent, but "If a Girl Isn't Pretty" and "Find Yourself a Man" no longer work.
Nevertheless, there are three significant reasons for Stray Dog's show coming together:
1. Rob Lippert of O'Fallon, Ill., who designed a masterfully functional set, complete with grand staircase and elegant curtains. What he has done with the space is remarkable.
2. Zach Stefaniak's demanding choreography. He didn't streamline any of the numbers that needed vibrant dancing, and it shows in a rousing "Henry Street" and superb tap dancing in "Rat-a-Tat-Tat-Tat."
3. Lindsey Jones' bravura performance as Fanny Brice. She comes into her own singing "People," and makes you believe her in the dynamic "Don't Rain on My Parade," through its melancholy reprise at the finale. She hits her comic stride in "His Love Makes Me Beautiful."
Jones is nearly on stage at all times. The stamina she displays is impressive. The vocal demands are gargantuan, and she conveys strength and vulnerability.
Jones' acting isn't quite yet on the same level as her superior vocals, but she dives in with gusto. Maintaining the New York accent, she can't be as flamboyantly over-the-top as Brice, yet she doesn't attempt a mere Streisand imitation nor reach for affectations. Few local actresses could achieve what she has here in her fifth Stray Dog musical.
Brice rose from "different looking" to major vaudeville and radio star, capitalizing on her strengths as a comedienne and songstress during the World Wars period. The book begins when Fannie is a determined but naive teen and ends as Fannie's ill-fated marriage to wheeler-dealer Nicky Arnstein crumbles, which in real life was around age 36.
Fun fact: Producer Ray Stark developed "Funny Girl" because he was married to Brice's daughter Frances.
Just as Brice's image is burnished in our brains by Streisand's indelible performance, so is Arnstein's via debonair Omar Sharif. Always aces Jeffrey Wright, a winsome mainstay in local theater, has the monumental task of bringing this worldly, suave Romeo to life.
He shines in "You Are Woman," but the pair have little spark despite their valiant attempt. Their finest scene is their emotional break-up, piercing each other's hearts and wrenching ours.
The casting wasn't entirely without its hiccups opening night, not as fluid an ensemble with a larger-scale show. But an ebullient Zach Wachter stood out as dancer Eddie Ryan, splendid in his musical numbers.Laura Kyro, as Fannie's mother, did a fine job as well.
The music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill features other catchy songs like "I'm the Greatest Star" and "Sadie, Sadie," but the ones added for the movie, "My Man" and 'Second Hand Rose," aren't in the stage play.
Music director Chris Petersen led a small orchestra on stage, and kept everything flowing, from Brooklyn's Henry Street to vaudeville stages to the Arnsteins' mansion in Long Island.
Bell also designed the costumes, and they reflect the period very well.
For tackling such a complicated show, the folks at Stray Dog deserve much applause.
What: "Funny Girl"
When: Thursday-Saturdays through Aug. 9; additional performances Wednesday 30, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, Aug. 9, at 2 p.m.
Where: Stray Dog Theatre, 2336 Tennessee Ave., St. Louis
Tickets: www.straydogtheatre.org; 314-865-1995