Arts

Review: ‘Funny Girl’ Revival Exceeds Immense Hype at the Ahmanson

(L-R) Melissa Manchester and Katerina McCrimmon in the national tour of "Funny Girl." Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

The national tour of the highly acclaimed and commercially successful Funny Girl 2022 Broadway revival has intrepidly tap danced into Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre, and, with a protagonist who epitomizes the quintessential underdog arc, has categorically won over the hearts of a charmed audience. To say that the towering expectations for this tour have been exceeded would be an understatement, in large part due to relative newcomer Katerina McCrimmon who gives an all-time performance as Fanny Brice.

The company in the national tour of Funny Girl. Photo by Matthew Murphy of MurphyMade

In a musical-theatre world where revivals are plentiful, Funny Girl is seeing its very first Broadway retuning (by Harvey Fierstein) since debuting in 1964 when idol Barbra Streisand was the sharp-witted and affable Fanny, a real-life comic and belter of the mainstage, which the musical is partly based on. Of course, Fanny’s nattily dressed beau and gambling businessman, Nick Arnstein, is also spotlighted semi-autobiographically. Notions of love, career, sacrifice, family, and marriage troubles are weaved together in a story (conveyed as an extended flashback) that ingratiates with candor, comedy, and a commitment to Brice’s indefatigable spirit. The cast expertly realizes the vision of director Michael Mayer whose deft touches are matched by the enthusiastic choreography of Ellenore Scott — including tap routines by Ayodele Casel — which accentuate Funny Girl’s strongest features.

(L-R) Jackson Grove, Katerina McCrimmon, and Rodney Thompson in the national tour of Funny Girl. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Before retracing the protagonist’s journey as a leading star and girlfriend/wife to Nick — and the drama associated with their relationship — the show begins momentarily in the present when Katerina McCrimmon’s Fanny, now the headliner of the famed Ziegfeld Follies, pensively wonders backstage if her estranged husband Nick, depicted by Stephen Mark Lukas, will arrive.

Embodying the era of WWI and the 1920s as seamlessly as she does, McCrimmon is so undeniably personable as a metaphorical “bagel on a plate full of onion rolls” that the Ahmanson crowd can’t help but root for her Fanny, of a humbly Jewish New York origin, who is initially overlooked for not being conventional. Through McCrimmon’s otherworldly actualization, there is more than just a mere acknowledgement of what is seen; there is a full surrender and admission that she is as equally hysterical (e.g., the gut-busting “His Love Makes Me Beautiful”) and earnest (e.g., the softly sung “Who Are You Now?”) as the existent vaudeville luminary was.

(L-R) Melissa Manchester and Izaiah Montaque Harris in the national tour of Funny Girl. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

There is, moreover, the realization that McCrimmon is as vocally skilled as Streisand’s Fanny — as potentially blasphemous as it is to say. The Cuban-American, Miami native does it uniquely, too, as she meets the incredible demands of the title character while simultaneously making the portrayal her own. That is, whereas Streisand’s voice is more forward and sharp, McCrimmon adds more mass to her vocals while never compromising her clarity; in fact, as powerful as the mid-20-year-old sensation sounds, it’s almost like her voice paradoxically flutters through the air like a feather. “I’m the Greatest Star” is the first indication of McCrimmon’s mind-blowing exploits, and, when it’s time for “People,” and the Act I-ender “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” attendees are moved by a superstar-making turn that surely won’t be topped this year.

(L-R) Katerina McCrimmon and Stephen Mark Lukas in the national tour of Funny Girl. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

The eloquent and risk-taking Nick Arnstein could be played banally, but Stephen Mark Lukas gives his character the layered subtleties it deserves. For example, Arnstein means well as someone who wants to invest in ventures like casinos, but the consequences of his insecurity to prove his worth vis-à-vis his big-star significant other puts a strain on maintaining traditional marriage dynamics as was the norm in the early 20th century. Lukas’ scenes with McCrimmon are particularly engaging and sometimes a laugh-out-loud hoot like during Nick and Fanny’s date in Baltimore. Lukas more than holds up his end of the bargain in rendering his inscrutable and arguably manipulative Arnstein, inviting observers on a ride of heartrending curiosity.

Katerina McCrimmon in the national tour of Funny Girl. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

As Fanny’s supportive mother Mrs. Rose Brice, the Grammy Award-winning Melissa Manchester gives a winning and humanistic performance as someone who lives vicariously through her onstage daughter’s rise and romantic frustrations, reacting with good intentions even if the message might be misplaced. Mrs. Brice’s card-playing companions, Mrs. Strakosh and Meeker, are similarly imbued with loveably comedic energy by Eileen T’Kaye and Cindy Chang, respectively.

Izaiah Montaque Harris is the altruistic Eddie Ryan, a dance director and close advocate of Fanny’s who takes a chance on her when David Foley, Jr.’s enjoyably idiosyncratic Tom Keeney, an Irish theatre owner, is quick to write her off. Harris is especially riveting when he continually ups the ante with a fiery tap demonstration that garners alacritous applause in the first act. Adding a little tap flair of their own are Lamont Brown and Ryan Lambert as the sterling silver-clad “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” men who spryly hoof with silver-sheened rifles in tow. The last of the standout cast members is Walter Coppage whose booming, announcer-like intonation gives his esteemed Florenz Ziegfeld much gravitas.

(L-R) Katerina McCrimmon and Stephen Mark Lukas in the national tour of Funny Girl. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

The company, as exemplary as they are, owe much of their presentation to the crew. Just as director Mayer and the choreographers infuse much zest into the production, David Zinn’s depth-perceptive set — inclusive of lights bordering the proscenium — transports viewers back to a more buoyant and elegant past with various backdrops and curtains. Similarly, Susan Hilferty’s costumes are stunning, featuring sparkling attire, as well as flowery and bouquet-shaped headdresses for the Ziegfeld chorus girls. Kevin Adams’ lighting warmly envelops the based-on-a-true-story developments from start to finish, and Michael Rafter’s music supervision (along with orchestrations by Chris Walker and sound design by Brian Ronan and Cody Spencer) ensure that Jule Styne’s tunes are as magnificent and aurally vivid as ever — starting with the lushly melodic overture.

(L-R) Stephen Mark Lukas, Izaiah Montaque Harris, and Katerina McCrimmon in the national tour of Funny Girl. Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Overall, this slightly updated rendition of Funny Girl pays a compelling tribute to the original concept while offering a refreshed look at a legendary musical. With minor tweaks to the numbers, comic moments, and dramatic beats, what’s old is new again for an audience who can experience what Broadway patrons were raving about in the 1960s. Not to mention, the national tour has a special something — or rather, someone — that the Broadway revival didn’t have: Katerina McCrimmon. Just as one can affirmatively posit that there’s nothing more inspiring than seeing a character (in this case based on an actual woman in Fanny Brice) triumphantly assert her caliber, McCrimmon, the performer herself, does the same with a walloping achievement that produces instantaneous chills.

Funny Girl runs through Sunday, April 28th at the Ahmanson Theatre. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit centertheatregroup.org. Funny Girl will also play at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center from Tuesday, May 28th through Sunday, June 9th. For additional details and tickets, visit scfta.org.

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