Lyric Stage Finds a Brash, Beautiful Funny Girl in Newcomer Kristin Dausch
Funny Girl, now running at Irving's Lyric Stage, is Broadway's great musical comedy Cinderella story. Up from the ash heap of cheap vaudeville arises a gawky nobody, comedian Fanny Brice. She sings and clowns her way into the glossy Ziegfeld Follies, marries a charming prince of a fella and reigns over the Great White Way as show business royalty in the first third of the 20th century.
That would be all there is in some Disney-fied version of the true-life tale, but Funny Girl, born on Broadway in 1964, is the classic it is because composer Jule Styne, lyricist Bob Merrill and book writer Isobel Lennart gave the show's characters unpleasant but believable flaws. Fanny thinks she's too ugly for her handsome husband, suave gambler Nick Arnstein. His fragile male ego is bruised by her stardom and earning power, so he turns criminal and goes to prison. Even Florenz Ziegfeld, the producer who discovers Fanny and builds Broadway hits around her, is an imperfect fairy godfather. He's constantly threatening to send his headstrong Cinderella back to the cellar of showbiz if she doesn't behave.
The secret to Funny Girl, of course, is in the casting of its quirky Jewish princess. There's just no getting around the Streisand factor. Miss Barbra was the unknown who became a superstar as the first Funny Girl, onstage and then on film (sharing the 1968 Best Actress Oscar with Kate Hepburn). So to play Fanny Brice now also means playing a little bit of Barbra playing her; that's how we know the character.
The role needs a comic actress just this side of pretty (à la Barbra). She has to power-belt "I'm the Greatest Star" and "Don't Rain on My Parade"—not just hit the notes, but seriously knock them into next week with an emotional gut-punch that could remind listeners of La Streisand, but not too much. There's risk in copying Streisand's attack note for note. Too drag queen. Too pageant-y. But it's worse to come up short by comparison.
Finding the perfect Fanny is one factor keeping producers from attempting a big-budget Broadway revival. There's never been one, because there is only one Streisand. Shoot, there's also only one Lainie Kazan. She was Streisand's understudy, and when Babs finally got a sore throat and Lainie got to go on, the critics raved and another career was launched. (Kazan's still around as a veteran comic actress, playing loud ethnic moms in the films My Favorite Year and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.)
Lyric Stage's Fanny Brice, 22-year-old New York City college student Kristin Dausch, is still a mite green for Broadway, but in an Irving, Texas, auditorium on a rainy Saturday night, she more than met the challenge of one of musical theater's toughest roles. Dausch has a stunning set of pipes. She hasn't yet achieved the magical "ping" in her singing voice that Streisand had in her prime, but with more training and experience, she'll probably locate it. When Dausch opens her throat on the last few phrases of "People," and when she digs into the wrenching sadness of "The Music That Makes Me Dance" (a torch song cut from the movie version), she definitely makes the role her own.
This young actress' strength right now is her wonderfully cockeyed comedy talent, put to great use in Funny Girl's kicky Ziegfeld Follies numbers (the hilarious pregnant bride bit seems a lot shorter than the movie's, which is too bad). She is more Brice than Streisand when she contorts her face into rubbery grimaces and stumbles around in intentionally awkward dancing. She's good, this girl. Stardom might be another show or three in the future, but Kristin Dausch is definitely on her way.
Supporting their star in this immensely entertaining production, directed by Cheryl Denson, is an enormous ensemble of good, mostly local actors, singers and dancers. Lyric Stage treats its American musicals with reverence, taking no shortcuts and making sure every line and every note is done as the composers intended. There are 35 musicians in the orchestra pit for this show—just the sound of the strings in the tune-up before conductor Jay Dias cues the overture sets the pulse racing—and when the music is soaring and everyone's singing and dancing in tuxes and feathered headdresses for the Ziegfeld scenes, it's thrilling.
To play Nick Arnstein, Lyric has brought back 24-year-old Christopher Pinnella, here a couple of seasons ago to star as Billy Bigelow in Carousel (also directed by Denson). Looking slick in a ruffled shirt and singing a little here and there, are about all that's required of his character, but Pinnella makes him sexy enough to let us understand why Fanny keeps him around.
As the man who got away, Fanny's young dancer-pal Eddie, Jeremy Dumont gives the night's most explosive performance. Hoofing like a young Donald O'Connor, singing better than a great dancer needs to and acting with more subtle colors than the leads, Dumont is a triple-threat musical comedy star who should have shows written for him. (He was a standout as one of the Jets in last season's West Side Story at Lyric and has since relocated from NYC to Dallas. Please, please, please, local theaters, someone do Singin' in the Rain and put him in it.)
All of Funny Girl's supporting players are well cast. Mark Oristano lends his booming voice to the role of Flo Ziegfeld. Radio host Mike Gallagher chomps a cigar and mugs effectively as Fanny's vaudeville boss, Mr. Keeney. Lois Sonnier Hart, as Fanny's ma, shares a duet with Dumont in "Who Taught Her Everything?," one of the nicest moments in the first act. Alexander Ross, coming directly off the lead in Altar Boyz at Uptown Players, gets a solo and a juicy comic turn in the small but showy part of the Ziegfeld Tenor.
If the sets by Bryan Wofford seem a tad drab and the costumes by Drenda Lewis don't flatter as well as they might, well, those are minor complaints about a production that takes a nearly impossible show to mount and fills it with bright, young talent giving it their all. Go ahead and catch Kristin Dausch now in Funny Girl. A couple of years from now, you might be paying quadruple the ticket price to see her on Broadway. Theater's funny that way.
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