“Who is the ‘pip’ with pizzazz? Who is all ginger and jazz?” Anyone familiar with Broadway’s 1964 ‘magnum opus’ “Funny Girl” already knows the answer! Based on the life and early career of pioneering comedienne Fanny Brice, the show skyrocketed its then-unknown star–a young actress by the name of “Barbra Streisand”, into the stratosphere of show business success (eventually earning her an Oscar for the blockbuster film adaptation along the way.) Now “The Conundrum Theatre Company” is presenting this time-honored and much-loved musical as their inaugural, fully-staged offering at “The Colony Theatre” in Pasadena California. The production is also a joint partnership with “The Friends of the Rialto”—an organization helping to restore that historic 90-year old theatre located in the heart of Pasadena California. Having opened on what would have been Fanny Brice’s 125th Birthday, ‘first-nighters” were even treated to a celebratory “Birthday Cake” to commemorate this momentous occasion.
“The Conundrum Theatre Company” has breathed an invigorating new life into this classic many ‘thought’ they knew! Figuratively ‘set’ within the backstage enclaves and rehearsal halls of Fanny’s memory, we are taken to a simpler, bygone era as the young Miss Brice dreams of making a name for herself in “Show Biz”. Sure, she’s talented and certainly eager enough, but as her mother’s friend–the local ‘busy-body’, “Mrs. Strakosh” reminds her: “For average, you’re a pleasure; but when people pay good money in the theater—especially the ‘male element’—they want something to look at!” There are a significant amount of tears behind the significant laughs (–of which there are lots too,) as the story takes “Fanny” from a gangly nineteen-year-old chorus girl with a flair for comedy at “Keeney’s Music Hall”, through to her rise as a “Superstar” of “The Ziegfeld Follies”. Yet all this merely serves as a backdrop for her romance and marriage to gambler “Nick Arnstein”. Told in ‘flashback”, Fanny makes her first entrance through the auditorium’s center aisle, ascending the stage and into her “dressing room” anxiously awaiting her estranged husband’s “return”. When asked if she’s nervous about their reunion, Fanny replies “Nervous, happy, scared, excited—you name it, I am it!” “Too bad you got a show to do,” her assistant reminds her; “Thank GAWD I got a show to do!” she replies. True, it takes a lot of ‘try’ to triumph, and sometimes you gotta start small, but by the time the curtain-calls roll around, you will be amused, enthused, and deeply moved.
Renowned Composer Jule Styne’s music understandably ranks as among the very best and most noteworthy he’s ever written for a Broadway show, which is equally matched by Bob Merrill’s always smart and witty lyrics. Moreover, Isobel Lennart’s libretto routinely uses feigning humor and broad theatrical gags as a veneer beneath which lies a pretty potent exploration of relationships—with all their hopes, hurts, and apprehensions—as played out against one woman’s rise to stardom. The play is far more compact, free-flowing and three-dimensional than any cinematic ‘star turn’ could be, and it’s these elements that Director Bryan Snodgrass takes full advantage of, throwing in a few unique twists in his staging–many times where they’re least expected (but are the most resonant.) Indeed, Snodgrass’s insightful touch mines plenty of entertainment gold habitually left buried by previous productions in their pursuit to mimic popular perceptions of the cinematic translation. Instead, he allows many of the smaller moments to have their impact making for a completely new, completely ‘super-charged’ show. Perhaps his most innovative achievement though, is how he never lets the show’s presumed ‘slicker’ elements to get in the way of its inherent charm, nor the luster of the individual performances (of which there are numerous!) In addition, Snodgrass makes use of the full auditorium at intervals, such as with Fanny’s initial entrance or during her startling (–particularly for Ziegfeld,) ‘re-imagining’ of the effusively romantic production number he sets her at the center of. The orchestra, under the steady direction of Ryan Luévano is cleverly situated on both sides of the stage, and slightly elevated leaving the stage area wide open for the performers to move about freely, and their efforts are also enhanced by Jay Lee’s terrific sound-design, which shrewdly adds an ‘echo’ to what’s being sung or spoken at key instances to distinguish that they’re being conveyed as part of Fanny’s ‘inner’-thoughts. Likewise, Sasha Markgraf’s costumes are themselves fairly spot-on and frequently dazzling!
Lighting the proceedings “up like light” until it “flickers and flares up” is Toni Fuller’s vivacious choreography. She seamlessly integrates some high-strutting and fancy-stepping with kick-lines and tap-breaks, along with the kinds of moves that made Vaudeville so unforgettable. All are richly appropriate to the period (circa World War One up through the 1920’s) This really is a Grade A ensemble piece as well—something many don’t always give the show credit for. Fortunately, given the exceptional artistry by Fuller and her dancers, this is happily apparent throughout. “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty” is a big group endeavor that mightily launches the first act while setting the stage for still more sensational things to come. “Coronet Man”—the number that allows Fanny to at last achieve “Break Out” status from the chorus at Keeney’s (and brings her to the attention of Mr. Nick Arnstein) is a typical specialty number of the period (–and brother, can this bunch sell it!) “You were wonderful” Nick tells Fanny afterward upon their first meeting backstage (–and he’s sooo right!) “Henry Street” is another rousing collective intermezzo as the entire block of “Henry Street Gypsies” pulls all the stops out to celebrate Fanny’s opening night as a burgeoning “Ziegfeld Star”. Starting out as a jaunty jig, it quickly transforms into a lively waltz (–again validating Ms. Fuller’s ingenuity.) Before they’re done, it rates as a Bona-Fide Act One Crowd-Pleaser! Act Two gets started with “Sadie, Sadie, Married Lady”–Styne and Merrill’s ode to marital and domestic bliss that once more evidences some snappy wordplay (“How that marriage license works on chamber-maids and hotel-clerks; the Honeymoon was such delight that we got married that same night!” Fanny exults.) Making the most of some outstanding choral work, Snodgrass and Fuller also utilize some inventive staging that has Fanny drifting back to her stage-side dressing table (where she begins and ends the story) while an identically dressed “dance double” briefly takes center-stage as our heroine in effect, “recalls” from outside the action, the magnificent day she officially became “Mrs. Arnstein”.
As “Fanny”, Jackie Brenneman brings a refreshingly original interpretation to this iconic role and gracefully makes it absolutely her own. Fanny’s character arc revealing her growth as both a performer and a person are in sound hands with this lady, but just as significantly is how she’s on-stage a good 98% of the time, but never fails to have us 100% in her corner, genuinely hoping Fanny’s hopes and being just as dashed by her disappointments. She also has a laudable way with the tossed-off comic line (of which the script is abundantly packed) and a powerful ‘belt’ voice, along with a thoroughly appealing ability to enliven Merrill’s lyrics whether they be light-hearted or heart-breaking. This is verified right off the bat with a winning rendition of “I’m The Greatest Star”, then later with the highly anticipated “People”—arguably the score’s most recognizable selection, and yes, it is very much worth waiting for! This same energy and expressiveness is put into the first act closer, “Don’t Rain On My Parade” (–and YOWZA! What a way to close the act!) After intermission, she continues to impress and amaze with “Who Are You Now?”–a rare and truly beautiful example of Broadway Musical song-craft in this or any other show. Shortly following “The Music That Makes Me Dance” unfolds as a ‘live’ radio broadcast as Fanny takes her first steps into this ‘new’ medium even as her world is falling apart. The outcome is breath-taking in its poignancy and is Brenneman’s crowning glory of the evening. “Hey Gorgeous–here we go again!” she proclaims in the end, determined that whatever is happening behind the scenes, she certainly isn’t going to let it show once that spot-light hits. Right alongside her is Michael Cortez as “Nick Arnstein”—described at one point as “A Gambler, A Promoter and a Charmer”. “I discovered her before you did, Flo” he tells Ziegfeld after Fanny’s unexpected, but illustrious debut; “I had the hunch you two belonged together.” “I have the same hunch” the showman sardonically replies (–and its aging me fast!”) Cortez himself scores with “I Want To Be With You Tonight”–a buoyant and full-bodied chanson that gives us a top-notch taste of his substantial voice and sturdy delivery (and is still another ‘plus’ the score boasts.) In Act Two, he even gets a quick reprise of “Don’t Rain On My Parade”–this time sung from Arnstein’s point-of-view. As a team, Brenneman and Cortez do an excellent job with another of the show’s many stand-outs, “You Are Woman, I Am Man” both providing it with a memorable intensity and surprise vulnerability. (Bathed in red-light which is also used to indicate her inner-thoughts, Fanny croons, “Though most girls slip-up in ordinary ways–I got style: I do it ‘Bordelaise!”)
Steven Duncan Sass is also likeable and identifiable as “Eddie Ryan”—the man who helps ‘discover’ Fanny and who often serves as the voice of reason or conscience. We all know a guy like “Eddie”—everyone’s pal and confidant. Sass is also a dynamite dancer which he proves early on in “Eddie’s Fifth Encore”–an incredible tap-solo, wherein he displays some unbelievable stamina and dexterity culminating in an eye-popping split! He also shines leading “Rat-A-Tat-Tat”–one more first-rate ‘satirical’ tune burlesquing life as a “Doughboy” in “The Great War”which incorporates some skillful “Military Time-steps” and “Rifle-drills” (–just try to keep your toes from tapping along to this one!)
Meanwhile, Alison Korman is a wonderful whirlwind of comic energy as Fanny’s ever patient saloon-keeper mother, “Mrs. Rose Brice”. Here in this theatrical version, Mrs. Brice is given many more opportunities to demonstrate her own vocal talents, and rest assured Ms. Korman never displeases. Bestowing her as a genial Yiddish mama, she too has her share of funny business. Together with Mr. Sass, their duet “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows” is an awesome melodic ‘strut’ (complete with pulsating lights) that showcases two seriously ‘big league’ voices blending together (“If they could’ve paid the price—they’d have hired Rosie Brice!” Korman sings.) Their “Find Yourself A Man” (–a trio with “Mrs. Strakosh”) is another bravura exhibition as well. Although normally played by John Scott, on opening night the role of “Florenz Ziegfeld” was performed by Stamford Hill, who brought a nice, no-nonsense, but paternalistic quality to the legendary impresario, allowing hints of a softer side here and there to come though commendably. Praise-worthy mention should also go out to Mrs. Brice’s trio of friends and ‘poker-buddies’: Meggan Taylor as “Mrs. Strakosh”, Anne Wendell as “Mrs. Meeker” and Tina Oakland Scott as “Mrs. O’Malley”—a congenial bunch of old ‘yentas’ from the neighborhood (regardless of their individual ethnic backgrounds) they each interject a nice jolt of levity into the proceedings. Nick Mestakides is also right-on-the-money–not just vocally—but with the whole ‘emotive’ style and ‘unctuous’ “keep smiling at all costs” persona as the “Show Tenor” of “The Ziegfeld Follies”(–and Fanny’s ‘Groom” during their extravaganza-turned-debacle, “His Love Makes Me Beautiful”.) Statuesque Kathleen Maccutheon similarly earns her share of laughs and applause for her brief bit as the showgirl “Mimsy”—giving us a sassy, cut-rate Mae West (–and oh, what a headdress!)
“When you’re gifted, then you’re gifted” (these are the facts–I got no axe to grind!) Full of glitz, glamour, comedy, dance and romance–not to mention a plethora of brilliant songs worthy of a Ziegfeld Star, “Enjoyable” comes quickly to mind regarding “The Conundrum Theatre Company’s” “Funny Girl”! “The Colony Theatre” is located at 555 North 3rd Street, in Burbank, California, and “Funny Girl” has taken up residence there for an extended run that began on Saturday October 29th, through Sunday, November 20th, 2016. Show-times are Friday evenings at 8:00 PM, Saturdays at 3:00 PM and 8:00 PM, and Sundays at 3:00 PM. Tickets are available online at : ConundrumTheatreCo.com or by calling (866) 811-4111. (For groups of ten or more, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )
Production Stills By Susy Shearer Photography, Courtesy Of Emily Mae Heller And “The Conundrum Theatre Company”; Special Thanks To Emily Mae Heller, Ryan Luévano, Bryan Snodgrass, Toni Fuller And To Cast And Crew Of “The Conundrum Theatre Company’s” 2016 Production Of “Funny Girl” For Making This Story Possible.