Written by Mike Martin
The Gem Theater’s production of Funny Girl has a lot going for it. It is fast paced, well-executed, sounds nice, and looks nice. It’s also good to see a production of this particular show, which doesn’t get produced very often and has a lot going for it in terms of music and script. I watched it on Valentine’s Day, and the show seemed to hit every note save one. The audience certainly enjoyed themselves, and all-in-all, Funny Girl is another feather in the cap of the Gem, which has quietly made a name for itself as one of the very best in Orange County at producing musical theater.
As a concert piece, Funny Girl is well suited to the format. It’s a tight show with an accessible story, and the characters are well-defined and well-written. It doesn’t suffer from the problems of deconstruction that some other, bigger shows do when compressed into tighter confines. The orchestra is tight (with special kudos to percussion and brass), and the actors involved do a very nice job fleshing out their roles with limited access to technical flash. Stand outs include Beth Hansen as Fanny’s mother, Alex Bodrero as the unctuous Nick Arnstein, and a subtle and often hilarious Tim Klega as Florenz Ziegfeld. Additionally the rest of the cast turns in committed performances as they wheel around the gravity of the heroine of our story, Fanny Brice.
Here, unfortunately, is where Funny Girl takes a bit of a fall. Director Damien Lorton makes the rather bizarre choice of splitting the part of Fanny into twelve sections and a different actress plays Fanny during each section. As such, we rarely get chance to like her (something I would argue is fairly important, especially in a show like this, where one woman dominates the show, similar to other shows like Mame or Gypsy). It’s not that the actresses themselves are unlikable, far from it. There are some talented ladies up there. But having to re-adjust to new Fanny every few minutes (and watching the rest of the ensemble do it over and over) seems unfair to both the audience and the cast. We get Fanny’s of all shapes, sizes, and ages. Occasionally all the Fanny(s) appear together as if to make the point that Fanny Brice is some sort of “everywoman.” Sadly, this misses the point entirely. Fanny Brice was a unique talent in a time and place that stymied women at every turn or forced them into very narrowly defined roles in the entertainment industry. To see one woman own the part and encompass that talent is the very reason this show exists. However, here we see Fanny(s) who can dance, Fanny(s) who can sing, and Fanny(s) who are funny, but none of them get a chance to do all the heavy lifting at once. I have no doubt a couple of these ladies could have shouldered the load admirably. Nicole Cassesso, Adriana Sanchez, and Nickie Gentry all shine and leave you wanting more, and it’s mildly disappointed when another, less dynamic Fanny fills their shoes. To make matters worse, there are occasions when the age difference between Fanny and her leading men becomes a bit awkward, leading to uncomfortable shifting and unplanned for laugh lines at my performance. Again, I must stress that this is in no way the fault of the performers. This seems to be much more a case of “the gimmick” getting in the way of the show that would have been better off without it.
All that being said, Funny Girl is a well-executed production of a script that rarely gets a chance to shine. Despite the sometimes strange and disjointed nature of the self-imposed limitations of the casting, this show has a lot to recommend it. In the early months of the year when so many theaters are in a state of hibernation artistically, Funny Girl shows a lot of heart.
Feb 12- Feb 21