It’s nearly impossible to leave your own experiences, prejudices and expectations of a show at the theater entrance. Try as you might to distance yourself from previous versions of a show you’ve seen, read or even been in, it can be a real obstacle for even the most optimistic and unbiased individual to clean that slate. In the case of Funny Girl at the top of your bar, you have the iconic Barbara Streisand who played the role of Fanny Brice both on Broadway and in the 1968 film. Oh, and some guy named Omar Sharif playing her love interest Nick Arnstein. So, there’s that. Happily, Hillbarn Theater sets the bar very high with their production, making it pretty easy to forget for a few hours those previous interpretations.
As you might expect the role of Fanny Brice plays pretty pivotal in our enjoyment of this show and our funny girl gracing the stage in Foster City, won me over in a matter of minutes. She has good control of the comedy and absolutely owns the “show biz” vocals. Her swells and crescendos seemed absolutely effortless and she embodied the effervescence of the character whole-heartedly. She is charming, self-deprecating and charismatic and we are rooting for her the whole way through her journey, applauding her indomitable spirit, her authenticity and her passion for all things. This actress has the chops and then some, which given the marathon stamina and range required for this part, is no small achievement. Also adding to the enjoyment was the actress playing Mrs. Brice. In a parallel universe where I couldn’t have my own mother, I’d like to put in a request to have this particular version of Mrs. Brice play the role of my mom. She is superbly played, matching Fanny’s comedy and robust vocal prowess note for note. I could listen to her brash New York accent for days. (*Disclaimer – it should be noted that I also find the sound of bagpipes and roosters to be soothing.) I’d come play cards with the ladies that frequent the Brice household any day of the week.
Some great levels from this suave incarnation of Nick Arnstein and sweet chemistry between him and Fanny for sure. There were also some good examples of some serious hoofing (in particular from Eddie) though the larger chorus dance numbers over all had a few syncopation challenges here and there. A hardworking and varied ensemble rounded out the cast with an even level of talent including just a single child, who while professional and cute as a button, seemed strangely out-of-place being the only child we ever saw. Technically, this is a fun staging making clever use of what for this show is a somewhat limiting space. It’s a practical set (nothing to write home to Mrs. Brice about visually perhaps) and while the costumes didn’t maybe punch in all the right places, they fit well and certainly didn’t scream budget or detract from the production either. There were some, “odd” lighting choices, abrupt and maybe not quite in sync changes that might have at the end of the day just been trying too hard but nothing totally unforgivable.
Perhaps the biggest accomplishment for this production was the sound. For the first time at Hillbarn a 17 piece orchestra replaced the usual canned music tracks used for most musicals in the space. I always found the pre-recorded music a tad disappointing and flat so I was genuinely ecstatic to hear live music, especially for this show. The Musical Director was also tasked with playing drums which, to be perfectly frank, I don’t know how one even does that. And, while balanced and no notable level issues from my seat, the difficulty of that play and direct challenge may have explained the occasional small hiccups from the orchestra. I have to say though, a fantastic change and addition to see at this theater and one that got HUGE applause from the opening night audience. I’ve always thought the Overtures and Entr’acte were a tad unnecessary, but in this instance the audience (myself included) was thrilled to experience the live music resonating in the rafters, nearly knocking the gels out of the lights at time. This was a long overdue treat for the supporters of Hillbarn and I can’t wait to see what other improvements and growth the theater has in store for its patrons.
As far as the actual show, it runs a bit long (always does) but it’s worth it for the zinger of an end played very well in this production. The well-executed emotional last bit made up for any of those slower scenes and songs you’d opt to cut if it weren’t so totally sacrilegious to do so. If you know and like this show, I feel this is a really nice version of it bound to impress and entertain. If you don’t know it, it’s a great introduction not only to the show, but to some top talent and what this theater company can do. A vibrant, fun and brassy 4 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara for a giant slice of theatrical chutzpah. Funny Girl plays through September 21 at the Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City.