In a 1951 obituary for singer-comedian Fanny Brice, the New York Times mentions her parody of the famed “Dying Swan” ballet from Swan Lake and “her take-off of Camille with W. C. Fields as the maid,” and adds that Times critic Brooks Atkinson called her “a burlesque comic of the rarest vintage.” The musical Funny Girl, based on Brice’s life and now playing at Vintage Theatre, made a star of Barbra Streisand in 1964 and became a successful movie four years later. Of course, there were deletions and outright fabrications in the musical version of Brice’s life. Her marriage to Nick Arnstein, a swindler who sponged off her wealth, is romanticized, and the plot is simplified along pretty familiar lines: Unknown young girl becomes a star, falls in love, acquires fame and wealth, sees her life beginning to fall apart and ends up center stage, singing bravely and defiantly — in this case, the electrifying number “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” There’s a new angle here, though: Brice’s problem is not an impoverished background or uncaring parents — on the contrary, her mother (the only parent in evidence) is loving, savvy and protective — and Brice does not enter a self-destructive slide fueled by drugs and alcohol. Instead, Brice’s problem is her looks. She’s so plain that her mother’s friends lament her chances in show business around the poker table with “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty,” a song that includes the line “Frumpy faces that could cause ya/To have temporary nausea.” I don’t know how plain the real Fanny Brice was, but 1920s America was abuzz about her nose job, and it’s hard not to sense a submerged anti-Semitism in that era’s response to her Brooklyn accent and evident Jewishness.
In the musical, however, Fanny’s self-confidence is unshakeable, as is her belief in her own eventual stardom. The musical is true to its times, with chorus girls treated like objects and men all-powerful in the world of entertainment, so Fanny’s sheer, exuberant chutzpah is refreshing. She stands up to impresario Florenz Ziegfeld; fights to get what she wants in the way of costumes, song numbers and staging; and is aggressive — if sometimes also a little insecure — in her pursuit of love. But, alas, once married, she becomes Nick’s doting wife, willing to excuse his financial crimes and support him in everything — which the biographies tell us was true of Brice herself until she came to the end of her rope. “He’s the boss,” this Fanny likes to say. And also, like a refrain, “I’m dumb — but not that dumb.”
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The Vintage production is powered by a strong performance by Lauren Cora Marsh; she gives Fanny a lot of emotional power and has a fine singing voice. Her jokey patter is crisp and clear, her phrasing in the serious songs spot-on, and when she realizes her marriage is unraveling, her grief is affecting. The role could have used more warmth and humor overall, though — and Marsh is clearly capable of providing them. She shows sweetness and warmth in “People (Who Need People)” and a charming humor in “Sadie, Sadie, Married Lady.”
But in a should-be-laugh-out-loud scene like the pregnant-bride number, Marsh just isn’t funny. And though she takes on some of the real Brice’s almost grotesquely out-of-sync comic moves, they’re done without real playfulness, and she never pulls out all the stops. It’s impossible to imagine this woman goofing on the Dying Swan.
Keegan Flaugh is an attractive Nick, starting as a suave suitor and melting down into something far less attractive as his dishonesty begins to bite. Flaugh has perhaps the best male voice in the ensemble, and it’s put to good use on “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” but overall he has too little singing to do, and it’s disappointing when he begins an exciting reprise of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” — only to stop abruptly and race off stage on the verge of a breakdown. The seven-person orchestra is excellent, the choreography serviceable and the action kept aloft by a lively ensemble. Suzanne Connors Nepi’s Mrs. Price is a highlight with her caustic asides, and Linda Suttle provides a touch of extra humor as Mrs. Strakosh. These two are particularly effective in the lighthearted number in which Mrs. Strakosh and James Bloom’s tap-dancing Eddie urge Mrs. Brice to “Find Yourself a Man.” It all adds up to a very entertaining evening.
Funny Girl, presented by Vintage Theatre through January 17, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 303-856-7830, vintagetheatre.org.