REVIEW: Funny Girl (Drury Lane Oakbrook)

Go to ‘Funny Girl’ for the music

 Marc Grapey Adam Pelty Sara Shepard Jameson Cooper Tammy Mad

Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace presents:

Funny Girl

Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, book by Isobel Lennart
Conceived by Gary Griffin and William Osetek and directed by William Osetek with associate director David New
Music direction by Ben Johnson
Through March 7 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Sara Shepard Barbra Streisand so owned her role in Funny Girl that the 1964 musical has never had a Broadway revival. Loosely based on the life of stage and screen star Fanny Brice (1891–1951), the original ran 1,348 performances, became a hit film in 1968 and forever associated the songs "People" and "Don’t Rain on My Parade" with Streisand. Since the leading actress sings 14 of the 19 songs in the score, that’s a tough act to follow.

So let’s get the inevitable comparison over with: Spirited Sara Sheperd, in the leading role of Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace’s solid, sophisticated production of "Funny Girl," neither looks nor sounds like Streisand. In fact, she resembles Brice more closely than Streisand does. Her voice, though, is all her own, and she more than holds her own in the part.

If you’re going to this musical for the music, you won’t be disappointed. Jule Styne and Bob Merrill wrote wonderful songs and Sheperd gives them full measure.

Acting excels, as well. Sheperd plays Fanny with verve and a Brooklyn tang. We also see fine acting and talented dance moves from Jameson Cooper, as her fallback friend and mentor Eddie Ryan. Catherine Smitko is keenly sardonic as Fanny’s saloon-keeping mother, and Paul Anthony Stewart suavely shallow as her smooth-talking lover, Nick Arnstein.

If you’re looking for the color and grandeur of Brice’s vaudeville and "Ziegfeld Follies" career, that’s another story. This is a dark version of a troublesome show.

Holly Stauder Iris Lieberman Cathy Smitko Mary Mulligan Joey Stone Ensemble
Joey Stone Sara Shepard Nicole Hren Ariane Dolan Jameson Cooper

Told as a flashback in short, choppy scenes, the storyline covers the feisty comedienne’s determined rise from little-known Brooklyn performer to Broadway star and her love affair with Arnstein, a playboy, gambler and con man. Isobel Lennart’s uneven book reduces Brice’s life to a series of aphorisms. Stamped more by 1960s sensibilities than by those of Brice’s lifetime, the script sweeps aside such issues as Brice’s pre-wedlock pregnancy and sends a slew of mixed messages.

Are we supposed to admire Fanny for her plucky self-confidence as a performer or pity her for her profound insecurity over her looks? Should we applaud the stick-to-itiveness that leads her to practice all night or the devil-may-care with which she abandons long-sought success and leaves associates in the lurch to go running after a man? "Funny Girl" seesaws so rapidly through different moods, we’re left to wonder whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy.

Paul Anthony Stewart Paul Anthony Stewart Sara Shepard Sara Shepard 2

Every show needn’t have deep meaning, and I don’t mind much when songs and dance numbers trump plot and continuity in musicals. This production, weighted toward the downside, though, gives us little razzmatazz to counter the incongruities of the script.

Sheperd’s renditions of the well-known songs sometimes come off as slightly breathless, making numbers like "I’m the Greatest Star" curiously understated. Restrained scenes out of the celebrated "Follies" add no flash — in Act II’s "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat," for example, costume designer Elizabeth Flauto dresses the chorus in olive drab, and the showgirls of the chorus wander through the scenes clad in street clothes or rehearsal wear. Instead of Ziegfeld’s pomp and glamour, we get rear-alley views and lackluster dance sequences. The stage often looks too empty.

A brave production, with excellent performances, Funny Girl is worth its ticket price, but don’t expect catharsis. At show’s end, we don’t know whether to applaud Fanny or cry for her.

Rating: ★★★

Kent Haina Nicki Hren Joey Stone Zach Zube Anne Acker Jarret