In what may be perhaps one of the most meta Broadway turns of all time, Lea Michele’s masterful debut as Fanny Brice has finally come to fruition. Michele’s Glee character Rachel Berry would eventually squander her golden opportunity by leaving Broadway in pursuit of a television pilot that flopped hard; luckily, Michele does not appear to have this same issue. Beanie Feldstein originated the role in the Broadway revival, but Michele seamlessly takes over, along with Tovah Feldshuh as Fanny’s doting Jewish mother taking over from Glee’s own Jane Lynch. Having seen a lot of Broadway shows, I was still very surprised that Michele was so incredible that she received multiple standing ovations during this matinee. That’s right, Sue Sylvester won’t be storming off before act one ends, proclaiming “excuse me, I need to go kill myself.” Giddily comforting in its old-school Broadway vibes, Funny Girl is an excellent musical made only more fun by being in the presence of a Glee-crazed audience.
The atmosphere in the lobby and seats before the show lights dimmed was tangible and exciting. Before we were urged to “shut it off” regarding cellular devices or that we were about to be carried to “musical comedy heaven,” I tried to take it all in. I heard plenty of Glee chatter during my swift visit to the merchandise booth, and especially while seated in the orchestra. Just being around a crowd that had this much love for one of my favorite comfort-watch television shows brought me back to a simpler time. If it is not already obvious, Glee has meant the world to me for years, remaining one of the few television shows I got together to watch with my mom and brother consistently. This will be a musical theatre review, by way of an aging cheerleader of Lea since the very beginning.
Over a decade ago, Glee took the world by storm. That pilot episode alone was unforgettable, not to mention the impressive number of awards it would go on to win throughout its six-season run. The first time I ever heard Lea Michele’s earth-shattering vocal range in person was during an explosive version of Glee Live at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” Michele had a fiery, unforgettable showing as she exploded with the obsession of her love for Streisand. It is a voice unlike any other; countless solo shows, Glee/Scream Queens episodes, and minor controversy later, Michele’s bold return to the stage is everything I ever hoped it would be. From the very first moment we meet Fanny sitting at her vanity to the tune of “Hello, Gorgeous,” Michele never disappoints. Goosebumps worked their way up my arm from the second the spotlight hits her onstage.
Fanny clearly has talent, but no one really knows it. They can’t seem to see past her less-than-flattering features—or so she and many others keep prattling on about. Really, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There is an entire song about what one should do “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty.” Even the eventual love interest here seems to think of Fanny as “funny,” rather than conventionally “pretty.” Yet, I found Fanny’s silly accent and quirky nature apparent right from the get-go. Clearly, her talents lie in vocals, and boy does she ever sing her little heart out.
Near the start, Fanny cannot seem to find success. We begin at her very first day on the job at Keeney Theatre. Though her nerves are getting to her a bit, Fanny nevertheless powers through to her debut performance, and all of this in spite of her sassy, often overbearing mother Mrs. Brice opining her daughter’s crooked nose. Fanny’s debut is a minor hit—she is hilariously said to have had a standing ovation from “one guy in the mezzanine”—and backstage she meets a gorgeous, mysterious business with hypnotizing ruffles on his shirt. This man turns out to be the love of Fanny’s life: the dashing, excessive gambler, Nick Arnstein (Ramin Karimloo, Tony-Award nominee for Les Miserables). He talks her new boss into paying Fanny a hefty “$110 a week, plus dinner.” Fanny’s star is instantly on the rise as she moves on to headline several Follies for impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (Peter Francis James, Hillary and Clinton).
While Fanny rockets to superstardom and unforeseen riches considering her origins, Nick flounders. Their love flourishes initially, but as Nick grows greedier, it begins to suffer. Can it weather the storm of Nick’s bottomless ambition? Funny Girl explores their relationship in a particularly complex fashion. I was expecting the romance to be one of its least successful elements, yet I found myself riveted. Gender roles put under a microscope are a surprising development that is weaved carefully through this tale’s DNA.
Fluidly changing, intricate sets and rotating platforms explore a real sense of energy that allows its more intimate moments the space to properly simmer. A swoon-worthy duet like “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” or show-stopping meditative highlight “People” get the proper attention they deserve. Is it possible not to fall for Nick and Fanny as a couple in spite of their flaws? The chemistry between Michele and Karimloo is infectious. Whether Karimloo is wearing a shirt or bare-chested, his charm as Nick extends even into his complex moments.
Costumes sparkle and shimmer, growing grander as we get further into the core of Funny Girl’s trajectory. At one point, an explosive burst of confetti adds an extra layer of shock-and-awe pizazz. Of course, the show’s signature moment comes in the form of act one’s dazzling, magnificent finale, “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” Michele’s version of the power-ballad sounds less messily passionate than the first time I heard it; this time, her seamless integration into the character comes off far more assured. She feels right at home playing Fanny, as if this is the fulfillment of a lifetime dream. I have no doubt that this is exactly what has happened.
Naya Rivera’s Santana gives Rachel some sage advice about her hesitation in performing as Fanny during season five of Glee. “You can’t do this badly. You don’t actually have it in you… Who gives a crap what all the other peasants think,” she tells Rachel. Honestly, there is no way on earth that Michele could have flopped while performing this role—she feels born to play it. It took five seasons for Rachel Berry to take the Broadway stage proper (not counting her trip to the Gershwin Theatre in season two’s finale, “New York”), while Michele has frequented Broadway since her stunning early work in Spring Awakening. This marks the first major project for the young actress in years. By some weird twist of fate, Lea Michele effortlessly becomes Fanny Brice.
While “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is a high point, we are able to revisit this moment multiple times thank to its sampling during other numbers in this production. It keeps the tune ever-present in one’s mind, staying rattling around in there for days after I returned home. Each time she hits the high notes, Lea returns me to those same nostalgia goosebumps that supercharge the tune on so many different levels. A close second-favorite song would be “I’m the Greatest Star,” another that was notably featured on Glee. “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?” is also a super fun number that gives Mrs. Brice and Fanny’s buddy from Keeney’s, Eddie (Jared Grimes, Tony Award nominee, Netflix’s Manifest), both in character highlights.
Of course, none of this would be possible without Barbara Streisand’s Tony-nominated Broadway beginnings. Funny Girl opened in 1964, then Streisand returned as Fanny in 1968’s film of the same name, this time netting her a legendary Oscar win. The levels of meta implications reverberate on every level—Michele’s performance would not exist without Streisand’s, and perhaps her presence in the Broadway production would not have existed without Glee, either. Life imitates art imitates life. A weird harmony there felt worthy of exploration.
In closing things out, it is hard not to revisit the words of the fictional New York Times critic who reigned over “Opening Night” of Glee’s fifth season. His lengthy article wrapped up with an apt, “I know I’ll be going back for a second heaping bowl of Rachel Berry,” and I must express similar sentiment for both Lea Michele’s performance, and the show itself. I have no doubt that Funny Girl will experience a lengthy extended run—to return again to see either Michele or her understudy, Julie Benko, would truly be a treat. Yes, Funny Girl absolutely possesses a rewatchability to it, and an utterly timeless classic feel. However, I must stress that the success here is the bubbly, wonderful mood that I was left with following the show. When a trip to Broadway ends in racing to get home to watch the 1968 Streisand movie and the Funny Girl arc on Glee, one just has to know it did something right.
Funny Girl is currently playing at the August Wilson Theatre, featuring Lea Michele in the lead role of Fanny for every performance except for Thursday nights, during which Julie Benko takes over.