Wright State University supplies an entertaining production of the rarely attempted but incredibly tuneful 1964 musical comedy “Funny Girl,” the Jule Style, Bob Merrill and Isobel Lennart classic chronicling the rise of legendary vaudeville comedienne-turned-Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice.
Director Greg Hellems, offering a fluid, cinematic vision, curiously double casts the spirited, vocally demanding leading role so it’s imperative to tell you this show specifically dazzles in the hands of Melissa Hall, a charming actress who was just as winning and hilarious last season as Penny Pingleton in “Hairspray.” A lively bundle of energy worth rooting for, Hall endearingly depicts Fanny’s larger than life personality, appealing go-getter spirit and the engaging stage presence that fueled her reputation throughout the early 20th century. She also handles Styne and Merrill’s lovely score with impressive vigor and nuance, adeptly conveying the rip-roaring determination within “I’m the Greatest Star” and the tender sentimentality of “People,” “Who Are You Now?” and “The Music That Makes Me Dance.” Most importantly, Hall beautifully interprets “People” as a philosophy and her dynamic “Don’t Rain on My Parade” perfectly captures Fanny’s firm resolve at the end of Act 1 and her amazing resilience at the end of Act 2.
In contrast, Mimi Klipstine-Dick, who particularly portrays Fanny at matinees, eagerly desires to connect with the character but lacks surefire comedic timing and unwisely chooses to sing in the vein of Barbra Streisand, the iconic Fanny of stage and screen. Originality is the crucial requirement missing from Klipstine-Dick’s underwhelming performance, a committed effort that doesn’t evolve into the knockout this show demands.
Nonetheless, both ladies are surrounded by an excellent cast. Zack Steele, sharp, suave and exuding a maturity far beyond his years as flawed gambler Nick Arnstein, skillfully examines Nick’s pride, ambition and disappointment as a breadwinner. Justin Talkington, an exuberant presence recalling Broadway veteran Lee Roy Reams in his prime, lights up the stage as choreographer Eddie Ryan, Fanny’s pal who molded her talents in vaudeville and remained skeptical of Nick’s motives. The equally radiant Michelle Weiser takes her role as Fanny’s earthy mother Rose to compelling heights late in Act 2 when Rose confronts Fanny about Nick’s criminality. The absolutely delightful Kelsey Pohl as Mrs. Strakosh, fine tenor Mark Beyer’s resounding delivery of “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” and Emma Jordan as Fanny’s dutiful assistant Emma are also notable among the featured performers.
Additionally, Teresa Wylie McWilliams (“Hairspray”) creates wonderful routines once again from the busy activity of “Henry Street” and the seductive playfulness of “Cornet Man” to the tap dancing panache of “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” featuring scenic designer Pam Knauert Lavarnway’s grand staircase reminiscent of “42nd Street.” Andy Balmert’s first-rate lighting design, D. Bartlett Blair’s attractive period costumes and Scot Woolley’s outstanding orchestra are also pleasurable.
“Funny Girl” is a night and day experience due to Hall and Klipstine-Dick’s polar opposite tactics, but it clearly satisfies as feel-good musical theater.
“Funny Girl” continues through Nov. 11 in the Festival Playhouse of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are Nov. 7-8 at 7 p.m., Nov. 3, 9-10 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 3-4, 10-11 at 2 p.m. Act One: 95 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Tickets are $20 for adults and $18 for students and seniors. For tickets or more information, call (937) 775-2500.