Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
July 12, 2018

The chance to see a semi-staged concert of Funny Girl, presented by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, is a delight in itself. But with a dozen leading ladies sharing the honours as Fanny Brice – in surprisingly effective fashion – it becomes a genuinely special experience, with Caroline O’Connor proving to be the starriest star of the night.

The cast of Funny Girl. Photo © Robert Catto

Based on the story of real performer Fanny Brice, Funny Girl follows her life from stage-struck teenager, determined to become a performer despite people telling her she’s not pretty enough, to stardom with the Ziegfeld Follies. Meeting charming gambler Nick Arnstein, they fall in love, marry and move to a flash Long Island mansion. Eventually, however, he loses all their money in a failed casino and is jailed for embezzlement. Fanny keeps performing as she waits for his return.

With music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill and book by Isobel Lennart, Funny Girl opened on Broadway in 1964, making a star of Barbra Streisand who later played the role in the 1968 film. Twenty-one year old Jill Perryman also proved a sensation in the role in the original 1966 Australian production.

The idea of a galaxy of Fanny Brices isn’t entirely new. In 2002, Seth Rudetsky staged a one-off charity concert in New York featuring 15 performers as Fanny, among them Sutton Foster, Whoopi Goldberg, Idina Menzel and Jane Krakowski.

Maggie McKenna. Photo © Robert Catto

The SSO concert, directed by Mitchell Butel, takes a similar idea but develops it futher. All the performers are off-book, there is costuming, including some fabulous showgirl outfits, and a very simple but effective set. A central staircase divides the orchestra, with conductor Vanessa Scammell at the bottom left of the steps. The action takes place in succinctly staged scenes at the front of the stage, with basic props moved on and off by the performers at a snappy pace, keeping things moving seamlessly. Amy Campbell’s choreography also works exceptionally well in the small space and is cleverly used during scene changes. There were a few sound problems on opening night, with mikes frequently not turned up properly when performers began to speak to sing, but this will doubtless be sorted.

At the beginning of the show, the entire Fanny line-up appears briefly in a range of sparkling blue gowns, and then we start with Caroline O’Connor sitting backstage before a performance in 1927, waiting for Nick’s return from jail. As she looks back on her life, a cute Maggie McKenna appears to play her early teenage scenes, and lets rip with I’m the Greatest Star. From there the baton is cleverly passed from one performer to the next, with small gestures applied as they pass on the role: a shared look in a mirror, a gentle touch, a small kiss.

And what a wonderful group Butel has gathered with Michala Banas, Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Casey Donovan, Virginia Gay, Verity Hunt-Ballard, Dami Im, Zahra Newman, Queenie van de Zandt, Megan Washington – and Trevor Ashley in a surprise turn – also sharing the role.

Trevor Ashley. Photo © Robert Catto

Around them, Butel has cast the show very strongly with Nancye Hayes as Fanny’s mother, Don Hany as Nick Arnstein, Ryan Gonzalez as dancer Eddie Ryan, David Whitney as Florenz Ziegfeld Jr, and Valerie Bader as Mrs Strakosh, along with an ensemble. By keeping these characters consistent, the world around the changing Fanny feels anchored.

It’s remarkable how clearly and movingly Butel conveys the story, taking us into Fanny’s life and emotions, and making us care for her, even as the performer playing her changes. He has done a terrific job of picking the different songs for the different leading ladies, while several of them take on more of the dialogue. Banas really shines in the scenes in which she features, capturing Brice’s ready, goofy wit, with Hunt-Ballard and Bassingthwaighte also nailing their dialogue.

Occasionally one will sing while another acts (Newman and Banas, for example). Sometimes three will briefly share the stage together. The only time it feels a little odd is when Newman starts to sing Don’t Rain on My Parade at the end of Act One and is then joined by the entire Fanny line-up, some of whom haven’t actually featured yet, which makes it feel more like a spectacle and detracts a little from the story-telling, when most of the performance manages to transcend the concert feel.

Ryan Gonzalez and Nancye Hayes. Photo © Robert Catto

All the leading ladies bring something of their own to the role, and it’s fascinating to see the different dimensions and characterisations at play. Some of the many highlights include Casey Donovan’s glorious rendition of Cornet Man and Megan Washington’s very funny interpretation of Sadie, Sadie, but each of them have their moment.

Ryan Gonzalez confirms what a stunning triple threat he has become as Eddie Ryan, and Nancye Hayes and Valerie Bader are deliciously funny as the comically combative Mrs Brice and Mrs Strakosh. Don Hany isn’t the greatest singer but he holds the tune well enough, and exudes oodles of dashing, drop-dead charm in a strongly acted performance. Nigel Huckle unleashes a luscious tenor in His Love Makes Me Beautiful – in which Trevor Ashley garners some inimitable, tongue-in-cheek laughs.

Caroline O’Connor. Photo © Robert Catto

But it’s Caroline O’Connor who steals the show. It’s extraordinary that she can come back at the end of the evening and deliver a scene with Hany of such deeply felt emotion, while her sensational performance of My Man is spine-tingling. Joined by the other performers for Don’t Rain on My Parade, the opening night audience stood, knowing they had seen something pretty special.


Funny Girl – The Musical in Concert plays at the Sydney Opera House on July 13 and 14

TICKETS

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine