★★★★☆ Caroline O’Connor’s Fanny Brice shows why her reputation as the nation’s most gifted entertainer is so richly deserved.

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
July 23, 2016

The trouble with roles that already have a definitive performance, is that parallels are inevitably going to be drawn. And so it is for the Broadway classic Funny Girl, the musical biopic of variety star Fanny Brice, immortalised by Barbra Streisand in the cherished, oscar-winning 1968 film adaptation. It was a savvy bit of casting by the Production Company when, for its debut production in 1999, it engaged the reigning queen of Australian musical theatre, Caroline O’Connor, as their challenger to Streisand’s crown. It’s a tactic that has been equally smart 17 years later. O’Connor not only gives Streisand a run for her money, but also delivers a sensational turn that makes clear why her gold-plated reputation as the nation’s most singularly gifted entertainer is so richly deserved.

Funny Girl is a double hinged story, polarised between the dazzling, spotlit fantasy of the theatre and the dusty, tarnished reality backstage. It charts the hard-won success of a young, aspiring trailblazer who conquers Broadway and then America, to become one of the first bonafide musical comediennes. On the ascension from her humble Brooklyn roots to the highest ranks of American entertainment, as the headline act of Ziegfeld’s Follies, she enters into an ardent but imperfect love affair with suave gambling man, Nick Arnstein. The pair first meet while Brice is still a blossoming starlet and Arnstein has the connections and the means to dazzle her with all the finery money can buy. But as Brice’s success surpasses her beau’s – both financially and reputationally – the strain on their relationship (and his masculine pride) becomes untenable.

Caroline O’Connor as Fanny Brice

There are few roles as brutally involved as Fanny Brice. Appearing in all but a handful of scenes, tasked with daffy slapstick, touching vulnerability, sentimental romance and vocal virtuosity (often all at the same time), it’s a part that requires a star of truly world-class quality, and that’s exactly what this production delivers. Vocally, O’Connor’s performance is damn-near flawless, perfectly judging moments for restraint, such as the touchingly gentle People, and when to unleash her full-throttle power, most impressively displayed in the gloriously assured Don’t Rain on My Parade.

At 54-years-old, O’Connor might not immediately spring to mind for a character that begins the show in her mid-teens and ends up in her mid-thirties, but watching the irrepressible energy and spirit with which O’Connor conjures the goofball antics and unquenchable ambition of Brice’s rise to vaudeville royalty, any reservations melt away. It’s a masterclass in character acting and emotional sincerity that hits every comic, musical and romantic bullseye, but the most astonishing attributes of her performance are to be found in its subtleties.

The zingy one-liners that pepper Isobel Lennart’s book are gently nuanced by O’Connor to reveal Brice’s brittle self-confidence and plucky tenacity, bringing a wonderful level of depth and authenticity to her account. O’Connor’s Brice is complex – she is vulnerable, yearning, optimistic, headstrong, funny, heartbreaking, but most of all, she is a likeable, believable human being.

O’Connor and Nancye Hayes

With a lead who burns as brightly as O’Connor, it’s inevitable that other performances will be outshone. David Hobson is a charismatic but rather one-dimensional Nick Arnstein. His robust vocals easily compare to his leading lady, but the spark of electricity we should feel between Fanny and Nick never quite reaches the high-voltage it needs.

The rest of the principal cast all bring big performances, although not every line was secure on opening night. It’s clear that director Gale Edwards has aimed for a frankly lurid level of hammy over exaggeration in this production, but while certain characters, such as Susan-Ann Walker’s Mrs Strakosh and Nancye Hayes’ Mrs Brice, can shoulder that level of schtick, elsewhere it feels unnecessarily caricaturish. This is particularly unflattering for Luke Alleva as Brice’s long suffering and unfalteringly loyal dance coach, Eddie Ryan. While Alleva’s dancing is top shelf quality, his New York accent and cheesy repartee is so cartoonish that the undercurrents of romantic possibility between Fanny and Eddie are completely smothered.

Caroline O’Connor (centre) and the Production Company ensemble

By and large, however, this is a production that whisks the audience away with bold, bright escapism. The level of polish found in the ensemble is brilliant, and the full company numbers are simply a joy to watch, particularly the two Ziegfeld Follies showstoppers. These scenes effortlessly capture the glamour and spectacle of old Broadway, replete with shapely sirens and dashing gentlemen hoofers.

The technical elements of this production are economic but superbly executed. Designer Shaun Gurton has used his budget shrewdly to offer a flexible but easily understood canvas for the action, using a series of flown in curtains to efficiently move the plot along. Anthony Gabriele is a sharp and sensitive musical director, achieving a seriously stellar level of finesse with his orchestra. Any weakness in this department would be unforgivably damaging, but this is one area that this production turns out perfectly.

The Production Company presents Funny Girl, until July 31.


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