What does it mean to be a Funny Girl? A question I asked myself multiple times prior to seeing the North American Tour of this popular Broadway revival. While I knew that it was a musical from the early 1960s with Barbra Streisand as the lead, my knowledge what what the show’s about is rather limited. I grew up a bit more familiar with the movie of the same name and its sequel, Funny Lady, both of which also starred Streisand, due to my grandmother’s love for both. That being said, when my friend asked me to go see Funny Girl when it arrived in Detroit I had no preconceived notions of what the three-hour show would entail.
Honestly, that’s probably the best way to go into this show, with no idea what to expect. With a clean slate, I wasn’t sitting down for this show picturing how Streisand or Lea Michele would belt out a number, hitting that high note to thunderous applause. Instead, I could see the show for exactly what it was, a musical filled with talent from performers pouring their hearts and souls out on the stage. With a revised story from Harvey Fierstein, Funny Girl is sure to charm each and every audience member who takes a gamble on it. Continue on for my full thoughts on the North American tour of Funny Girl.
[Warning: Spoilers from the Funny Girl North American Tour are below!]
A funny girl finds her place in pre-World War I New York
Funny Girl begins with a flash forward, a scene that takes place closer to the end of the story than where Fanny Brice’s (Katerina McCrimmon) journey begins. Sitting backstage preparing for her role in Ziegfeld Follies, she begins to reminisce about her past. The show quickly switches, transporting Fanny from the esteemed actress in a starring role to her humble beginnings in the streets of New York. Seeing her as a teenager, the audience comes to know that she wasn’t anything close to a star. Instead, she is a hope-filled teen who is leagues away from the leading lady role.
She’s a funny girl, someone who’s supposed to make people laugh, but will never be the standard of beauty that people expect for vaudeville talent. A sentiment that is echoed by her community and the owner of the show Mr. Keeny (David Foley Jr.), with the latter firing her from being a chorus performer. With the help of her friend Eddie (Izaiah Montaque Harris), Fanny works hard to prove her worth, and hopefully get rehired. Through her audition, Fanny grabs not just the attention of the audience, but also the eyes of Nick Arnstein (Stephen Mark Lukas), a gorgeous man who has a bit of a gambling problem.
Through her connection with Nick, Fanny is offered a starring role in a Ziegfeld show almost a year after her faithful audition. While the role is meant to be serious, Fanny has trouble accepting that. Once again, she’s confronted with society’s standard of beauty and how she doesn’t fit the mold. Instead, she turns the role into a bit, fake pregnant belly and all, which is met with great acclaim from everyone who sees it. Although Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (Walter Coppage) scolds her at first for making changes to his show without her.
In the midst of all this, she’s also reunited with Nick, who seeks her out backstage at the show and shows intense interest. He admits that he wishes to start a relationship, but recognizes the barriers between them and that reality. That being that he’s leaving New York. However, eventually, the two meet again in Baltimore, Nick there for some meetings and Fanny on a tour with her show. The two continue on their romantic journey, which eventually leads to Fanny leaving the show and following Nick to Monte Carlo, all in the name of love. The first act ends with the powerhouse song, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” as Fanny runs off, chasing the man and leaving behind her dream of show biz.
Funny Girl changes tone in Act 2
For all the humor and levity that the first act has, the tone shifts quite significantly in the second half. Not that Act 2 doesn’t have humor, it’s still rather funny, but the trajectory of Fanny’s life takes a different turn, beginning with her act to follow Nick to Monte Carlo. When the couple breaks away in Baltimore, Nick indicates that he cannot until he’s rich enough to support her. Fanny’s never been one to take a step back and allow things to unfold, especially if she has any control over the situation.
Fate does happen to bestow a fortune back to Nick upon her arrival in Monte Carlo, and the couple marries. They buy a mansion in Long Island and it isn’t long before Fanny’s pregnant with their first child. Their life together is a storybook in nearly every way, but when Fanny decides to go back to work, cracks begin to form in the foundation of their relationship.
Their careers are in direct competition with each other, Fanny requiring more help with their son now that she’s returning to the stage, and Nick believing that running around the country for investors is the right course of action. Sure, they have the help of Fanny’s mother (Melissa Manchester), who is continuously supportive of her daughter’s life and career. However, being sidelined for Fanny doesn’t sit well with Nick, even more so when the power dynamic shifts with Fanny offering up her own money as a partner in his business.
You have to remember that this musical takes place just before and after World War I, where “traditional” values were held above the rest. Nick’s ego becomes bruised and he begins making riskier decisions in an attempt to gain some power back for himself. The resulting destruction impacts everyone around, although none more than Fanny. There’s beauty in destruction and the aftermath is the perfect manifestation of that belief. The show closes in a way that is heartbreaking but also hopeful, putting Fanny back in the spotlight, and reminding her that she’s the star in her own life.
The good and the bad of Funny Girl
The thing about going into this show blind is that it’s incredibly difficult to be disappointed, and with Funny Girl I was definitely not disappointed. A typical problem I see with revivals of decades-old Broadway shows is that they can feel outdated. It takes a certain finesse to bring to show a traditional musical with values and morals from yesteryear. For some shows, it translates well, such as Company, but for others, it doesn’t. For example, I’m beyond grateful I got to see The Music Man with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster back when I visited NYC, but it felt old.
Funny Girl, which first debuted back in the 60s and features a story older than that, could have easily fallen into the camp of old and outdated. But it doesn’t. The core message of the show still rings true, transcendent across time. Acceptance of ourselves, fighting against the stereotypes that society places on us, remaining strong and confident in spite of the challenges that life hands us. These are situations and feelings that anyone from any walk of life and see, understand, respect, and feel at their core. Fanny might be a girl from the early 1900s, but she’s reflective of each and every one of us.
I also love the representation that the show provided decades ago and it still does to this day. Funny Girl follows the story of a Jewish girl, a population that has been persecuted and overlooked for a variety of reasons. The show takes that population and places them front and center for all to see. That’s beautiful to have a story feature something as extraordinary as that. However, with this tour, we also have more representation in the makeup of the cast. We have representation from the LGBTQ+ population, members who are Black, Asian, and other ethnicities, and we have all ages and stages being showcased too. This isn’t a cast of just cis-gendered, straight, white men who are controlling the narrative from the beginning to the end.
Because of this, the show feels more real and representative of the world we currently live in. Living in Detroit, I can walk down the street and see a plethora of different skin tones, creeds, and lifestyles. That is the world I want to see represented on the stage of the shows I see. It enriches the experience in every single way.
I’ll also be honest, Funny Girl is the first time I’ve seen tap dancing in a stage production, and the experience felt life-changing. There’s an excitement, dare I say, a sexiness seeing these incredibly talented individuals partake in such a show of skills. The tapping in this show alone makes me want to see more shows with the form in it.
The three main leads of the Funny Girl North American Tour are stars each in their own right. Seeing that it’s truly Fanny Brice’s story, we have to start with Katerina McCrimmon. The first thought that comes to mind is a simple “Wow”. McCrimmon is out of this world as the lead of Funny Girl. I was blown away by almost every aspect of her performance. From the comedic hits to her delivery of lines to the way she can belt out a song. My God, her singing is something remarkable to behold. In recent years everyone thinks of Lea Michele as the embodiment of Fanny, but people should be using McCrimmon as the standard of what this role can be.
I was also blown away by Stephen Mark Lukas and his part as Nick. Nick is such an interesting character as someone the audience should easily hate, but he remains quite endearing. Even in the difficult moments. There’s one song in particular that feels like Nick’s mustache-twirling villain moment, similar to “Easy Street” from Annie, but I still found it hard to hate him. He’s just another cog in the broken society in which Funny Girl resides and I can’t hate him for trying to make the best of that. However, if there is a villain, it’s clearly him. The duality within the character is done brilliantly, which could be in part due to the script, but a lot of that credit is owed to Lukas. He’s a wonderment in this role and he is definitely a name I will be following from this point forward.
Now, the role and actor that stole the show in my opinion was Izaiah Harris as the endearing Eddie. Eddie was a bright star amongst every other character. He, at least in my opinion, was the one who actually cared about Fanny and therefore the one she should have ended up with. He never wavered in his friendship, always helping to propel her forward and not afraid to share the spotlight. He’s a genuinely good guy, and because of that steps aside for Fanny’s happiness. Harris is another amongst the cast that everyone should be on the lookout for. He feels like a friend, even though he’s up on the stage performing. He has such an ease in how he portrays his character as well with his tap dancing skills. He’s made for the stage and it’s a genuine treat to see him perform in Funny Girl. Harris is definitely going places and missing out on his career would be a travesty.
For those looking for a contemporary show like Hamilton or Six, this might not be the show for you. Funny Girl is traditional in its story structure and the music played throughout. You won’t hear any rap or pop music. The show is also almost three hours long, which is standard for most Broadway shows, although a few newer ones seem to be opting for shorter run times. But neither of these points should be enough to stop you from going and enjoying Funny Girl when it arrives in a city near you.
Funny Girl is currently on its North American Tour, so check it out when it arrives in your area. Let us know your thoughts on social media @mycosmiccircus or in The Cosmic Circus Discord if you go see the musical!