Katerina McCrimmon as Fanny Brice in the National Tour of Funny Girl. Photo by Evan Zimmerman.
Biographical musicals about legendary stars have become all the rage these days, but the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) has brought back one of the originals. While not quite fitting the mold of the “jukebox musicals” audiences have come to love, Funny Girl, which made its Broadway debut in 1964, does reflect on the love, life, and legend of a star: Fanny Brice. Featuring stellar direction by Tony Award winner Michael Mayer, a classic score by Tony, Grammy, and Academy Award winner Jule Styne, lyrics by Tony Award nominee and Grammy Award winner Bob Merrill, and an original book by Isobel Lennart from an original story by Miss Lennart, revised by Tony Award winner Harvey Fierstein, this inspired revival explores the human desire for love and recognition, as well as our innate capacity to rise above heartache and rebuild.
In this production, the talented Katerina McCrimmon stars as Fanny herself. And, while the curtain opens on her life as a full-blown star, the story quickly jumps back in time to when Fanny was just a young girl with aspirations of being a stage star. Though she’s told she doesn’t have the right look, she barges ahead, refusing to give up on her dreams and showcasing the indomitable spirit that will bring them to fruition.
McCrimmon perfectly captures that spirit with her spunky, upbeat rendition of Brice, creating a charming character who believes in herself against all odds. McCrimmon is wonderfully funny in her portrayal and, much like the real-life Fanny, lights up the stage with her humor and pitch-perfect, clear-as-a-bell singing voice. She aptly carries the audience along on Fanny’s journey, drawing them close to her with confidence and aplomb. Early on, she has viewers wrapped around her finger and rooting for her character, a feeling that remains until the very end.
Viewers aren’t the only ones that believe in Fanny either. She’s also championed by her doting-but-down-to-earth mother, Mrs. Brice (Barbara Tirrell), and her loyal friend, Eddie (Izaiah Montaque Harris). Often acting as a twosome, this pair becomes a sweet support system that anyone would want. Tirrell is both funny and tender in her role, while an endearing Harris elicits sympathy and love as his character pines for Fanny and remains firmly planted in her corner. Harris, it must be said, is also a gifted tap dancer and wows audiences with his impressive skills, which he presents with an incredible amount of joy and contagious energy in numbers choreographed by Ayodele Casel.
Izaiah Montaque Harris in the National Tour of Funny Girl. Photo by Matthew Muprhy for MurphyMade.
All is going well for this cute little trio until the dangerous but devastatingly handsome Nick Arnstein (Stephen Mark Lukas) enters the picture. He immediately becomes Fanny’s romantic fixation and slowly but surely turns her life upside down. Lukas is charming, brooding, and intense in his portrayal of this complex character. His version of Nick is both infuriating and disarming, which elevates the character from mere villain status to something much more human and sympathetic.
As Fanny grapples with her feelings and tries to find balance between her professional and romantic lives, fast-flying jokes, dazzling costumes, and over-the-top dance numbers, choreographed by Ellenore Scott, add levity. There are also fun supporting performances by Eileen T'Kaye, who portrays Mrs. Brice’s meddling friend Mrs. Strakosh, and the deep-voiced Walter Coppage, who adds a surprising amount of tenderness to his role as Florenz Ziegfeld.
Played out against intriguing vintage-style backdrops, this production feels both classic and contemporary. And, while it may focus on one particular woman at one particular time, its themes are relatable to all. In fact, that might be why so many people have loved this musical for so long—it speaks, at its heart, to an experience we can all relate to. Anyone who has ever longed to feel accepted, to break a barrier, or to heal an old wound will see themselves in not just Fanny, but many of these characters.
Worthy of a watch and some careful contemplation, Funny Girl runs through November 12. And, whether you’ve seen the show countless times or never before, this version is sure to tickle your funny bone, touch your heart, and stamp these characters on your soul.
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