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This review by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the

May 9, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Funny Girl’

It may come as a shock to those not familiar with the

musical, but there is nothing very funny about "Funny Girl."

The Jule Styne and Bob Merrill musical that catapulted Barbra

Streisand

to fame and long fingernails in 1964 has not had a major New York

area revival. Seeing it again, one can understand why. This, despite

the presence of a young and zesty newcomer Leslie Kritzer in the

central

role of Fanny Brice, the legendary Ziegfeld star.

What the Paper Mill Playhouse did so splendidly for the Sondheim’s

Ziegfeldian-styled "Follies," it is doing a little less so

for this musical that suggests the life (through the discourtesy of

Isobel Lennart’s skimpy and spineless book) of the extraordinarily

talented meeskite who rose from burlesque to vaudeville to Broadway

stage. Brice’s bitter marriage to the handsome gambler Nicky Arnstein

provides the core of the story. Brice, however, would eventually enter

immortality as the voice of Baby Snooks on the radio, a role she

originated

in the 1936 edition of the Follies. For what it’s worth, another

Styne-composed

musical "Gypsy" (written five years earlier) was a much finer,

musically richer, and grittier backstage musical.

It isn’t entirely Kritzer’s fault that Brice, in this made-to-measure

showcase, isn’t conceived or perceived with a shred of reality.

Somehow

the movie does a much better job of finding a modicum of truth in

what is otherwise mere backstage claptrap and gussied up theatrical

hokum. Under Robert Johanson’s slick direction, Kritzer careens

exuberantly

from one not-so-funny musical number to another and from grimaces

to grins with the energy and determination of a bulldozer. Blessed

with an impressive voice that mercifully brings a variety of textures

to the show’s best tunes, "People," "Don’t Rain on My

Parade," and The Music That Makes Me Dance." Kritzer,

nevertheless,

doesn’t, or hasn’t been directed to, channel more than an eventually

tiresome sameness of behavior and attitude into the role. Whether

it’s the schmaltz of the dramatic scenes or the shtick of the skits,

Kritzer is less handicapped by following in Streisand’s memorably

gawky footsteps, but by the essentially banal material. For Kritzler,

the trick will be to parlay whatever personal success is awarded her

into a vehicle she can truly call her own. She is a find.

Even more interesting is that Robert Cuccioli makes the kind of impact

in the role of Arnstein that Sidney Chaplin couldn’t and didn’t in

the original Broadway cast. Already established as a New Jersey

matinee

idol, the imposing Cuccioli takes command of a thankless and musically

spare role and delivers a dashing account of Brice’s no luck lover.

Bob Dorian portrays an imperious Florenz Ziegfeld as if that was all

there was to play. An ebullient and endearing Robert Creighton makes

a strong impression as Eddie Ryan, Brice’s childhood friend.

Michael Lichtefeld’s choreography provides what is par for a downtown

block party, and what is obligatory for an uptown Follies show.

Ironically,

and just as true as it was in 1964, neither of the show’s big musical

numbers musters up the laughs they should. In particular is Brice’s

misconceived debut number with the 1910 Follies. In it Brice, sings

"His Love Makes Me Beautiful," as she sashays down a staircase

as a grotesquely pregnant bride amongst a bevy of gorgeous Follies

girls. It’s merely tasteless, something that Ziegfeld wouldn’t

tolerate.

It’s also absurd to think that Ziegfeld would introduce Brice, his

new-featured comedienne and singer, in this way. In truth, Brice made

her debut singing "Lovey Joe," a "coon" song in black

dialect with a Yiddish accent and stopped the show. Politically

incorrect

to be sure, but can you imagine how funny that must have been?

Ironically,

it was the 1910 edition of the Follies in which comic Bert Williams

became the first black entertainer to share a stage with white

performers,

although he was only permitted his solo vaudeville routine. Together

they made the relatively new Follies the talk of Broadway. Curiously,

Williams is not even mentioned in the script.

The other big production number — "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat" —

is better at showing off the priceless Brice image. This time Kritzer

has a chance to display some physical comedy as a bufoonish Private

Schwartz clumsily drilling with an army platoon. As expected designers

Michael Anania (sets), David Murin (costumes), and Mark Stanley

(lighting)

have embroidered a lot of mediocre doings with the prerequisite glitz

and glamour. All quibbling aside, you really can’t go too far wrong

with a Styne score, a game and talented cast, and a stage full of

long-legged showgirls.

— Simon Saltzman

Funny Girl, Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive,

Millburn, 973-376-4343. Performances continue to May 20. $37 to $60.


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