People who have seen Lea Michele in Funny Girl are the luckiest people in the world.
No doubt about it, Lea Michele is the Greatest Star, singlehandedly salvaging a train wreck of a revival and tuning it into a white hot hit.
Not seen on Broadway since its original 1964 production, Funny Girl returns with a redesign of the 2016 London production, retaining direction by Michael Mayer and updates to Isobel Lennart’s original book by show-doctor Harvey Fierstein.
Act one fairly flies by like a musical theatre dream, while act two stumbles a little when the focus strays from Fanny. Not every show can have a happy romantic ending, but it is hard to watch a successful woman putting herself second to the futile whims of a floundering no-goodnik like Nick Arnstein, devastatingly handsome though he may be.
Rain Karimloo is luxury casting as Nick, enjoying strong chemistry with Michele (and basically everyone else he interacts with). Karimioo’s dreamy vocals are a treat, and he does not soften any of the brutal edges of the reprehensible cad.
The new design loses the charm of the London staging, which used theatre paraphernalia to create the scenes as the memory play unfolds. David Zinn’s scenic design has a central barrel-shaped pair of brick walls that open and close, achieving not much more than restricting the sightlines.
Susan Hilferty’s costumes (and some killer wigs) vividly trace Fanny’s arc from ugly duckling in burlesque to elegant swan headlining the Ziegfeld Follies.
You know you are at a golden age revival when the orchestra pit is actually in use. Under the baton of music director Michael Rafter, the band of 14 (including rafter on keys) seem to be having a musical party, such is the vibrancy and joy emanating from the pit. Jule Styne’s music sounds wonderful, especially the overture and entr’acte. The eventual cast recording is eagerly anticipated, and not just for the opportunity to enjoy Michele’s big finishes without the crowd screaming over the top.
Venerable veteran Tovah Feldshuh is a dynamo as Mrs Brice, bringing brio and warmth to all her scenes. As Fanny’s friend and confidant Eddy Ryan, Jared Grimes is given little to act by way of character development but he has an incredible tap solo in each act, both of which are superbly performed.
But back to Michele. How to explain or describe the thrilling quality of her performance? Aided by Fanny’s frequent asides, Michele quickly forms an inalienable bond with the audience, retaining an endearingly vulnerable disposition even as Fanny’s fame and success grow. Michele traces Fanny’s arc in every aspect of her performance, including voice, dance and physical body language.
From her first exquisite bell-like notes in “Who Are You Now?” through to her seemingly effortless belt and everything else in between, Michele displays absolute control of her vocals, performing with a potent combination of pure talent and devoted disciple to her craft. This truly is a performance for the ages, and is one of those storied turns that Broadway fans will ask each other if they saw in coming years.
Anyone lucky enough to be visiting New York in the coming months must see Lea Michele in Funny Girl.
Funny Girl plays at August Wilson Theatre, New York.
Photos: Matthew Murphy