NEW YORK (AP) — When Broadway’s revival of “Funny Girl” begins, star Beanie Feldstein sits in a Broadway dressing room, getting ready to go on. She wonders nervously to her assistant: “You ever feel like there’s someone watching from the shadows?”
The line takes an extra jolt of meaning because Feldstein is stepping into hallowed ground. She’s playing Fanny Brice, a role so associated with Barbra Streisand in the ’60s that no Broadway revival has been attempted until now — with a Sunday opening at the August Wilson Theatre that even coincides with Streisand’s 80th birthday.
And yet Feldstein stays strong, letting the pressure drop like one of her fabulous coats slipping off her back onto the floor. Almost three hours after that scene, she’s completely won the audience over. No shadows are holding her down.
Feldstein’s Brice is earthy, saucy, physical — a lovable underdog. She may not posses Bab’s vocal prowess, but she radiates the hunger, wry humor and fragility to be an unlikely heroine for a new generation. Her opening line is a classic and she owns it: “Hello, gorgeous,” she says to the mirror.
Set in New York City before and following World War I, “Funny Girl” is a semi-biographical musical account of the life of stage star Brice and her loving but ultimately toxic relationship with gambler-businessman Nicky Arnstein.
If any show was tonally split into two, this is it. Act One is a comedy as it charts Brice’s rise from awkward Brooklyn-born Jewish hoofer to comic star of the Ziegfeld Follies. Act Two is a downer, the fall of two lovers who finally understand that they are incompatible.
The creative team led by assured director Michael Mayer have their own challenges — 27 scene changes, more than a dozen songs and a cast of over 30. Costumes by Susan Hilferty are sumptuous and David Zinn’s set uses a revolving turntable around a giant brick cone at the center of the stage that opens to be various interiors — living rooms and train stations, among them.
Though the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill song list has been scrambled over time, two of the most famous are here, “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” and Feldstein makes the former small and sadly longing, while the latter is a boisterous, almost bullying threat. Both appear toward the end of Act One and the second half looses steam and treads water for a while.
Ramin Karimloo plays Arnstein stilted at first, struggling with a role both slimy and charismatic, but ends strongly, always shining when he’s singing. His Arnstein remains a bit of a cipher, often drenched in a kind of noir that’s not in keeping with the rest of the show.
“Glee” star Jane Lynch as Brice’s mom is at her cutting, catty best, a master of comic timing, while Jared Grimes as a pal of Brice nearly tap-dances away with the show, a bright spark of talent and energy whenever he’s on stage.
But the show rests and falls on Feldstein, who must posses as Brice both a grand confidence — “I’m the greatest star” — and an insecurity (“You mean it?”). Brice is a beacon for all the misfits, a stand-in for the unconventional — “a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls” — and Feldstein nails it. Plus, she can deliver a “fakachta” with authenticity.
Highlights include a hysterically seductive and hungry “You Are Woman, I Am Man;” a crowded celebration of married life in “Sadie, Sadie;” the touching duet “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows”; and the showstopper-in-the-show “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” with 12 dancers mimicking soldiers. Look for a moment when Karimloo shuffles playing cards theatrically and Lynch does the same not long after.
The original book by Isobel Lennart has been tweaked by Harvey Fierstein, who also supplies the preshow warning about silencing our phones. There is a winking, fourth-wall-smashing flavor to the show, with Feldstein starting Act Two by jumping up through the orchestra pit and Grimes acknowledging and encouraging cheers during his Act One dance break. Confetti cannons and fake dollar bills are also tossed into the audience, perhaps too cloying a step.
It turns out you don’t need that. All you need is Beanie Feldstein. Hello, gorgeous, indeed.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits