A starry cast take on Barbra Streisand's most famous role – and come out on top
When you think of classic Hollywood and Broadway legends who broke the mold, it’s hard to go past Fanny Brice. She was never expected to go very far given that she didn’t fit the accepted standards of beauty at the start of the 20th century, but she managed to crack her way into stage, screen and radio stardom with a comedic instinct that was second to none, superb acting skills and sheer tenacity. In 1963, 13 years after Brice’s death, another mold-breaking woman, Barbra Streisand, revived the Brice legend in a musical loosely based on her life, Funny Girl.
Streisand has a few things in common with Brice – a similar look and sensibility – but in a show that stands for mold-breaking women (it has a book by Isobel Lennart, a fascinating and groundbreaking writer), why not smash the show’s own mold to pieces?
That’s what happens in this Sydney Symphony Orchestra concert version of Funny Girl, which has 12 different music and musical theatre stars embodying Fanny over the course of one evening. They perform together and alone, subbing in and out like runners in a relay. Those performers are: Michala Banas, Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Casey Donovan, Virginia Gay, Verity Hunt-Ballard, Dami Im, Maggie McKenna, Zahra Newman, Caroline O’Connor, Queenie van de Zandt, Megan Washington and Trevor Ashley.
Given that line-up, this was always going to be an essential event for musical theatre devotees. That it lives up to the sense of occasion is truly extraordinary.
Not even half of the performers would ever be cast as Fanny through any traditional casting process – most would be knocked out for being either too young, too old, not white, not the right look, not the right body type, not the right voice type, not the right gender etc. – but they all bring something special to the role, and they all conjure up the essence of Fanny.
Seeing a group of leading women (and one man) so diverse working together and owning the concert hall stage is the perfect antidote to an industry that can be so conservative and exclusionary it uses “colour-blind casting” as an excuse to cast a caucasian woman as one of very few leading characters in the canon who is a woman of colour.
It’s not the first time a group of women have shared the role of Fanny; a famous 2002 benefit concert in New York featured Broadway’s brightest (seriously, watch Lilias White belting the bejesus out of ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’). But director Mitchell Butel has conceived this semi-staged concert with plenty of ingenuity and superb judgement. His choices play to every performer’s strengths and it feels like there’s an extraordinary sense of camaraderie between these women; and not a touch of the rivalry that the world seems to believe musical theatre leading ladies must have.
They’re all great, and it’s difficult to highlight any individual. But unsurprisingly, there are wonderful comedic moments from Michala Banas, Maggie McKenna, Virginia Gay, Verity Hunt-Ballard and Trevor Ashley, moving scenes from Queenie van de Zandt, Natalie Bassingthwaighte and Zahra Newman, while Dami Im, Casey Donovan and Megan Washington bring plenty of vocal heft to the stage. (Actually, Washington delivered one of the surprise performances of the night, showing a lighter side than usual and decent acting chops). Caroline O’Connor, who has played Fanny multiple times before, frames the entire show and is essential to its success.
The show has plenty of zing with Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s score brought to life by conductor Vanessa Scammell and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (although the number of sound flubs and missed microphone cues at the first performance is really inexcusable). The big song and dance numbers, choreographed with plenty of old-school showbiz razzle-dazzle by Amy Campbell, all shine. Nancye Hayes, Ryan Gonzalez and Valerie Bader are essential elements in their bit roles, and they all make the most of the lighter numbers.
Despite its big Broadway style, Funny Girl is a deceptively tragic musical. It’s about an extraordinary woman whose life becomes consumed by a gambler and con artist, Nicky Arnstein (played here by Don Hany). In a narrative sense, the story of her rise is also consumed by the story of his descent, as she tries her best to fill the role of dutiful wife.
As the show reaches its conclusion, Fanny is left heartbroken and sings the heart-wrenching ‘My Man’ – a song actually made famous by Brice herself. O’Connor’s delivery of the song at the first performance was everything you could possibly hope for, with a vocal and dramatic richness that’s unmatched by any other musical theatre actor in the country – and few others in the world.
At this moment, when Fanny has reached her lowest point, the other performers materialise on stage to lend her the strength she needs to turn over a new leaf and forge ahead. Fanny has the strength of all these women, and together they defiantly belt out ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’. If that doesn’t make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, you might want to check your pulse.