Generally, if you are not in the mood for something overly dramatic, and want a fun night out with music, rhythm and a beat-driven dance break or two that will make your heart flutter with jazz hands every time you hear 5 6 7 8, then you are a musical groupie and there is a treat in town just for you… Funny Girl at the Fugard Theatre will dazzle and delight!
Funny Girl is one of those iconic musicals, that even if you haven’t seen it, you undoubtedly know about it. Set in early 20th century New York and surrounds, it is the semi-biographical staging of the life of American actress, Fanny Brice. It follows ‘her’ life as a driven young comedic singer, as she carves out a career for herself with Ziegfeld Follies flair, even though she may not have been the quintessential pretty starlet.
Most people’s Funny Girl references are however strongly linked to the fact that it propelled Barbra Streisand to stardom, as she starred in both the stage and screen versions, leaving the world with the impression that only a Streisand-like star can carry the role of Fanny Brice.
It is undeniably unfair to expect anyone to step into or even fill Streisand’s Funny Girl shoes. Yet it is an involuntary expectation as you take your Fugard Theatre seat, waiting for the first recognisable notes of ‘People (Who Need People)’ and ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ to echo through the theatre… there is a pause, a breath being held, anticipation…
Then comes the amazing realisation that all fears are misplaced, as you hear Ashleigh Harvey own every note with great talent, exuberance, and just enough chutzpah to make the role her own. This production doesn’t need a Barbra Streisand. This Funny Girl has its own star in the form of the commanding Harvey. She impressively belts out the big numbers while delicately embracing the tender music moments. Along with these impressive vocal acrobatics, Harvey also brings a lovable vulnerability, perhaps even gullibility, to the character of Brice, allowing you to be drawn in by her character's ambitious dreams and emotionally invest in her and her journey.
Every leading lady needs a leading man though… enter Clyde Berning as bad-boy gambler, Nick Arnstein to sweep Fanny Brice off her feet. Although the original Funny Girl musical is acknowledged as flawed because of, among other reasons, the fact that the book by Isobel Lennart doesn’t allow for much character development apart from that of Fanny Brice, Berning as Arnstein manages to conjure up a great stage presence. Perhaps this is thanks to the Fugard's Funny Girl staging being a combination of the screen and stage versions under direction of Matthew Wild, as Berning's portrayal of Arnstein definitely has the necessary charisma to hold his own as answer to that of his talent crush Brice. Berning brings a charm to Arnstein that lures the audience in, revealing the source of Brice’s attraction to him, but as the story unfolds and heartache looms, you sense his building detachment too. This accentuated depth of Arnstein's character also gives more scope for Cameron Botha to shine as Brice’s theatrical guide and self-appointed guardian angel, Eddie Ryan.
This is not just a musical about love and angst though, but Funny Girl is actually truly funny too in the midst of Brice’s climb up the showbiz ladder. The antics and banter of the concerned and not-so-subtle meddling trio of Mrs Brice (Kate Normington), Mrs Strakosh (Diane Wilson) and Mrs Meeker (Michèle Maxwell) is a giggling treat to behold! Balanced against these motherly figures, Mike Huff as Florenz Ziegfeld brings a tough love fatherly figure energy to the show with great quips. Together their well-intended 'direction' of Brice and her life radiate a humorously endearing energy.
Embracing the supportive role of Emma, Brice’s dresser, is the charming Lucy Tops. Although her character is not one with a bold personality, and in fact is the ultimate supporting shadow to that of Brice’s rising star, her encouraging presence through Tops' subtle mannerism brings a noticeable softness to the stage too.
Along with these stand-out characters, the ensemble as a unit is definitely a highly skilled performing troupe of note, as is evident from the mutually supportive execution of everything from the tap numbers to those sweet-sounding, melodic moments that make you sway slightly in your theatre seat. Here special mentions must be made of the clear guidance and flair of musical director, Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and the delightful choreography by Louisa Talbot.
This musical is not only a Funny Girl performance driven affair, but also a fancy one at that. The fantastic costume design by Birrie le Roux makes the whole show even more glitzy. In fact, the costume design is so perfect that some of the dresses that are mere props on the stage would make you wish the show was longer so that Harvey as Brice could don just one more stunner of a gown.
The Fugard Theatre stage is dressed to the nines too, with inspiring set design by Saul Radomsky. The set, that allows for movement not only through performance but actual design mechanics, along with the great lighting inspired ambiance courtesy of Daniel Galloway and Benjamin du Plessis, easily transports you to the early 1900s theatrical times of Fanny Brice. The fact that this is all appropriately a glitz and glam canvass to show off the Funny Girl journey of Brice, however brings to mind the Coco Chanel fashion commandment: “Once you've dressed, and before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off.”
With this sound advice in mind, the beautifully dressed stage can perhaps be even more fashionable if it just takes off one or two pieces. During the show there are very short interludes where attention is drawn away from the primary exchange onstage as the eye catches an ensemble member adjusting or removing a piece of set for purpose of a scene change. To not detract from the story as a whole, Coco Chanel’s advice may provide guidance even in this context of musical theatre, as that too is chic and stylish by nature.
After the Funny Girl curtain call, there lingers a realisation that there is something very likeable about Fanny Brice and her flawed, perhaps even too male driven, story. Through the stage depiction you get to know her as a talented, and ironically very driven, woman who becomes too submissive to the will and whims of the people in her life. In her faults and follies you find this musical’s appeal, because when those real life feels get belted out in beautiful song, how can you not rush to the theatre to see it again and again.
Funny Girls calls the Fugard Theatre home until 11 June, with tickets available at Computicket.