THEATER REVIEW: This ‘Funny Girl’ Fanny leads cast of strong voices

“Funny Girl” / Mac-Haydn Theatre

“NICE” IS NICE. But probably real-life comedienne Fanny Brice, subject of the musical “Funny Girl,” was both something more and something less.

In any case, this woman’s story inspired some of the classiest musical theater songs of the sixties and beyond: “Who Are You Now?” “Music That Makes Me Dance,” and the amazing “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” (Of course, there was also “People,” which became ubiquitous and mildly nauseating in endless radio and cabaret repetitions.)

At the Mac-Haydn Theatre, Lauren Palmeri is Fanny. The woman can sing. The eyes in that face are stunning, belying the show’s complaints about “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty….”

As you might expect, there are loads of goofy-witty-funny lines in “Funny Girl.” In a physically rambunctious seduction scene, Fanny raises her head from the chaise longue to sing,

Oh the thrills and chills going through me.

If I stop him now, can he sue me?

Unfortunately, in the dialogue, Palmeri’s speed-speak and clipped delivery leaves a lot of funnies floating in the ether. (Director!)

Lauren Palmeri (c) as Fanny Brice with ensemble of “Funny Girl” at the Mac-Haydn Theatre through June 17. Photo by Sarah Kozma

I am also tempted to blame director Sebastiani Romagnolo for Palmeri’s excessively “nice” approach to the character. It became especially troublesome in the star’s delivery of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” When Fanny sings,

I’ll march my band out!

I’ll beat my drum!

she is not being nice. She’s telling the world, “Clear the streets! And get the hell out of my way!”

On the other hand, when this leading lady sings “Who Are You Now?” Palmeri’s keen musicality–and quietly intense questioning of her husband–is breathtaking. She is abetted by a reedy, pared-down orchestral accompaniment that seems to turn her loose.

The orchestra is a bit raw at the opening, and it has occasional balance problems. (Example: In “Music That Makes Me Dance,” an especially beautiful saxophone counter melody gets altogether too feisty.)

In Act I, Chris Cherin is sexy and compelling as the oleaginous Nicky Armstrong. That’s when the character is treading the top of the world. As a second-act loser he is less so, except when he is listening to Fanny. The listening is a lovely thing to watch.

Colin Pritchard is true and heart-melting as Eddie Ryan, the shadow-guy who loves. He and Judith Wyatt are especially appealing in the song-and-dance number, “Who Taught Her Everything.” As Fanny’s Jewish mom, Wyatt knows how to create the person without ending up in a caricature.

Once again, thank you Mac-Haydn for voices. Besides Palmeri, they give us Jayke Workman’s vibrant, sweet tenor in a Ziegfeld production number, Cherin’s easy baritone in the Nicky Arnstein songs, and an able chorus.

Choreography is very period-influenced-upsy-downsy. There is lots of bouncing, jumping, and lifting. In “Cornet Man,” however, director-choreographer Romagnolo and dancer Workman (yeah, he dances too), provide some nicely sculpted, kinesthetic empathy for us (the ones sitting around).

Quite a bit of “Funny Girl” seems to be trying hard to reawaken affection for old vaudeville spectaculars; but probably no audience member would weep if the WW I military extravaganza were to disappear from the show. It is when the evening moves toward Act II that the Jule Styne music and the Howard Merrill lyrics move into their proper (high) place in the musical theater canon.

Why do I suspect that the show’s original “Supervisor,” Jerome Robbins provided telling details? For instance, there is the mini-recitative, “Nicky Arnstein, Nicky Arnstein, I’ll never see him again,” which keeps popping up. And did he also suggest that the driving, syncopated vamp (borrowed from “…Parade”) intercede to point up human energy and ambition? Who done it? “Supervisor” always sounds important—but vague.

Of course, back then, if Robbins was doing “play doctor,” he should have found a fix for the show’s abrupt ending.

At Mac-Haydn, costumer Jimm Halliday carries on his usual love affair with color and organza. He always teases eyes with details such as a surprising royal blue vest or a girly rear end peeking out of the organza. Halliday is never boring, and he dresses Palmeri especially lovingly in an off-red, empire gown. Unfortunately, an aggressive black and white ensemble does Palmeri no favors. (Oh dear. Not even the immensely talented Halliday is perfect.)

And though no musical is perfect either, this one is really worth your time. Get tickets to it through June 17 at 518-392-9292.

PS: I’ve often wondered why, in so many program bios, are actors so “thrilled’” and grateful to be back at Mac-Haydn and other theaters? Though the sentiment is probably accurate, the phrases get obsequiously yukky. Nobody can do it without you, dear actors!

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