Sitting, not puttering.
Photo: Matthew Murphy
The audience starts applauding as soon as they hear the opening notes of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” They know what they’re here for. They’ve heard Lea Michele sing it before, whether on Glee or at the Tonys or in bootleg TikToks of this very production. And yet, once she actually starts to sing, it’s somehow better than expected. Her voice opens up, crisp and expansive, and it runs out of her with a remarkable combination of ease and power, like she casually split an atom in the back of her throat. Eye on the target, and WHAM! One shot, one gunshot, and MOLAR! I’ve seen her twice now, and both times, the audience stood up for an ovation mid-song, forcing her to stop and start again with a great, heaving hey, Mister Arnstein of cascading kinetic energy. Lea Michele has finally made it into Funny Girl, and damn it: Here. She. Is.
But you don’t need me to tell you that Lea Michele can sing. Her voice, agile and tensile, is the thing that propelled her from a career as a kid on Broadway (in Les Miz and Ragtime) to Spring Awakening and Glee. There, as Rachel Barbra Berry, she reigned over theater kids everywhere with an iron larynx and the support of televisual mastermind Ryan Murphy, who seems to have taken to scripting real life. The other primary facts are just as present in your mind when you settle into your seat at in Funny Girl: the reputation for bullying; the fact that she’s replacing a star, Beanie Feldstein, who despite a lot of public goodwill left the show early after bad reviews; that she has been publicly auditioning for this gig for her entire adult life. With every eye roll towards the audience and every belt, Michele seems to face the pressure to not just be good, or great, but the greatest. This is less a star vehicle than gladiatorial combat. She makes it through with blood on the sand.
All that despite — or, really, because — Funny Girl itself is a dud. It launched Barbra Streisand’s career, and she and Michele (and Feldstein, for that matter) have fought uphill against its many flaws. The show dramatizes the rise and rise of Ziegfeld comedienne Fanny Brice and heavily fictionalizes her relationship with the slimy Nick Arnstein, in book scene after book scene that tends toward the corny, sexist, dull, or all three at once. (Harvey Fierstein rejiggered Isobel Leonart’s book, though I wonder whether it’s jiggerable enough.) I would not wish the second act, which focuses on Brice and Arnstein’s collapsing marriage, upon any actor or theatergoer. The veins of sparkle among the slag are Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s songs, from the trumpeting fanfare of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” to the satin sheen of “People” and the mania of “The Greatest Star.” (“My Man,” inserted into the film, is still not in the show; you will have to head back to it Glee if you want to hear her sing it.)
When Feldstein opened the show, she couldn’t handle the songs, and as Helen Shaw pointed out, the “songs are the whole caboodle.” In Michele’s case, this works to her advantage. The way that the show’s written, Fanny’s voice is the metonym for her stardom, so as long as you really believe she’s got the magic, you don’t necessarily need to buy her comedic skills, or really any other aspect of her character. It’s like in Shakespeare, where the weather clears up when the right king is on the throne. Michele is not a natural comedian, but she finds a way to be charming with Fanny’s jokes, which are as broad as the East River, just by trying so very hard to sell every one. It’s like she’s hoping her Sketch Comedy 101 teacher will give her a gold star.
There’s an inherent cruelty to the humor of Funny Girl. Each of Fanny’s successes pulls her further from her husband. There are jokes about her body, her obliviousness, her lack of book smarts (which, yes, have elicited titters). Michele gamely runs herself into each sword, accepting the humiliation that comes with the dream role. Even if you believe the worst about her, it elicits an odd part of sympathy.
Perhaps buoyed by that enthusiasm, the cast around Michele feels stronger too. Tovah Feldshuh is about two feet shorter than Jane Lynch and several times more comfortable in the role of Fanny’s nagging Brooklyn mother. She carries off the brief poker-game scenes (built in to cover the set changes) with ease and aplomb, and at 73 can somehow kick her legs way higher than I can. As Arnstein, Ramin Karimloo smolders with a bit more oomf opposite Michele than she did with Feldstein, and their relationship has a sexual charge of mutual admiration. (Both times I’ve seen them perform, they broke and paused while fumbling with a decorative egg in the dinner scene, which is either an intentional way to endear them to audiences or one really trouble-prone prop. If it’s the former, it worked.) This version of the script increases his presence in the second act, and although it felt as if Feldstein’s iteration of the production was enlarging his presence to relieve some of the pressure on her, this time around, it distracts. We know she’s the main attraction. Why are we away from her?
And in fact with a confident and successful performance at the center, the other distracting choices grate more obviously. I don’t understand the logic of David Zinn’s set, which is built around a cylindrical silo that implies that grain farming has come to Henry Street in Brooklyn, and much of Michael Mayer’s direction doesn’t move the cast around the stage as much as continuously strand them in corners. A lot of the costuming makes the ballyhooed Follies look cheap. When you’re away from the big songs for too long, it’s impossible not to look down at the song list in your Playbill and wonder how long you will have to wait until Michele’s voice lights up the stage again.
All that ballast to right the production again leans on Michele, and she has to shove it back each time with each song. The audience seems simultaneously certain that she can do it but, at the moment, not sure if she will actually pull it off. As much as the structure of Funny Girl forces you to pit one lead against another, Michele against Feldstein against Streisand, this ends up being a competition between Lea Michele and herself. It’s a tautological experiment occurring seven times a week — can Lea Michele, the person, defeat Lea Michele, the meme? Yes, she can. But also, it’s unbelievable that she can. By coincidence — or maybe not — that’s the honest nut at the core of Funny Girl itself. Claim you’ve got talent and they’ll make you double down on your bet again and again. It’s famous as high-stakes gambling. In line for the bathroom at intermission of a Saturday matinee, I saw the wager in action. “You owe me 20 bucks,” a young woman was saying to her friend. “She’s incredible.”