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Theatre Review: In resurrecting Fanny Brice, Funny Girl throws shade all the way to Broadway

In 1964, Funny Girl, inspired partly by the life of popular vaudeville and Ziegfeld Follies performer, singer and comedian Fanny Brice, opened on Broadway and launched the career of the then 22-year-old Barbara Streisand. It stands to reason then that anyone attempting to revive the role, particularly in South Africa, will inevitably risk comparison. But South African actress Ashleigh Harvey, as Brice in the current Fugard Production, shrugs on the part as if it were made for her. And she's spectacular. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Fanny Brice was a woman out of time. “Odd-looking” and an accomplished comedian, dancer and actress, Brice stood little chance of ever being selected as one of Florenz Ziegfeld’s iconic “follies”. Ziegfeld, legendary impresario, theatre manager and producer, had an eye for beautiful things, particularly women, and it was this that was a trademark of his shows. Back then, objectifying women was as natural as drinking coffee.

It was first and foremost, their beauty, that was “a paramount asset of the applicant” Ziegfeld said of the some 15,000 women who auditioned for his famous follies between 1907 and 1927. Only 3,000 of these made it. One was the totally authentic Fanny Brice who became a perennial favourite of Ziegfeld’s Follies. New York Times critic, Brooks Atkinson described Brice as “a burlesque comic of the rarest vintage”.

Ziegfeld had spotted the multi-talented Brice during a performance at a burlesque house in New York and had immediately offered her a job. She soon became one of the highest-paid and most popular performers of her time, shattering notions of women as mere adornments for men or the stage.

The thing is, whoever seeks to revive the unique essence of Fanny Brice, has to first bypass what Barbara Streisand brought to the role in the Broadway production of the musical and which launched her career. That, as well as finding her way around and through the complicated and now iconic musical score by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill and the book by Isobel Lennart.

Wits graduate Ashleigh Harvey has enjoyed, so far, a solid stage career appearing, among others, in Greg Latter's Death of Colonialist, Michael Lessac's Truth in Translation and the musical Bash. She has also appeared in several feature films including the 2016 Mandela's Gun.

But like Streisand, it is Funny Girl that has allowed Harvey, who possesses a similar “unusual beauty” as Streisand and Brice, to come into her own as an astoundingly talented performer. It has catapulted her to centre stage where she simply dazzles, so much so that it feels uncanny. The role was created for an actress who possesses Harvey's talents.

But there is so much more to this revival than Brice and the actress who must play her.

The thing about Florenz Ziegfeld’s follies, his extravagant theatrical revues that dominated Broadway at the turn of the century and that birthed many of the stars of the era, was the spectacular aesthetics of the shows.

From the singers and dancers to their elaborate shimmering costumes to the set design, Ziegfeld offered audiences pure, awe-inspiring escapism and sensuality. What made these shows so unforgettable was Ziegfeld’s obsession with detail.

And it is this also that is so evident in this revival produced for the Fugard by Eric Abraham and Daniel Galloway.

It is the whole of the sum of its parts that render this production exceptional in all respects. From the lighting (by Daniel Galloway and Benjamin du Plessis) to the magnificent costumes (by Birrie le Roux) and the absolutely spectacular set design by Saul Radomsky, the zesty musical direction by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder brought to life by a 10-piece live band (with Danielle Asherson on violin, David Boverhoff on keys, Mike Blake and Mike Mager on trumpet, Carl Ashford, Daniel Dippenaar, Justin Carter on Matthew Foster on reeds, James Lombard on drums, Sipumzo Trueman Lucwaba on drums) and choreography by Louisa Talbot; each scene or tableau is a work of art.

The entire production is subtle and lush – a feast for the eye and ears – with lighting, costumes and scenography combining at times to appear as a renaissance painting and at others, a beautifully kitsch Pierre et Gilles inspired confection.

Innovative director Matthew Wild too has prompted wonderfully accomplished performances from a large ensemble cast including the dastardly but lovable Nick Arenstein (Clyde Berning), Brice's true love and Mike Huff as the slave-driving but affable Ziegfeld.

Threatening to steal the show whenever they are on stage are veteran actors Kate Normington as Mrs Brice, Diane Wilson as Mrs Strakosh and Michele Maxwell as Mrs Meeker. Maxwell and Normington are household names when it comes to musical performance and they prove once again that their talents have remained undiminished. Wilson too is a delight as the nay saying card-playing Mrs Strakosh.

The Funny Girl score consists of several huge, nostalgic numbers including Don't Rain on My Parade, People, His Love Makes Me Beautiful, I'm the Greatest Star and You Are Woman.

Harvey effortlessly navigates the demanding subtleties of acting, singing and comedy rendering a role that requires enormous discipline to appear quite effortless.

What this local production accomplishes is not only a great, seamless and rather camp night at the theatre, but also the showcasing of the extraordinary home-grown talent capable of serving up a show that would shine anywhere in the world, including Broadway.

Unlike modern musicals which often rely on superficial story and the easy appropriation of the accoutrements of the genre, Funny Girl, constructed also around the destructive relationship between Brice and Arenstein, has an underlying tragic depth – about being a woman in a man's world – which is why it has survived the ravages of modern pop culture.

If you are a stickler for authenticity and professionalism in the theatre, don't miss this. Funny Girl is on at the Fugard until June 11. DM

Photo: Ashleigh Harvey and Clyde Berning as Fanny Brice and Nick Arnstein in Funny Girl (Picture: The Fugard)

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