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Marya Grandy and Lance Baker in the Asolo Rep’s Fanny Brice, America’s Funny Girl.
Photo credit: myunionhouse.
If you thought you knew the story of Fanny Brice just from watching Barbra Streisand emote in Funny Girl, you might think again after seeing the Asolo Rep’s current production of Fanny Brice, America’s Funny Girl.
Not that this show, written and directed by David H. Bell, has a monopoly on truth. Whereas the stage and screen versions of Funny Girl, which concentrated much of their time on Fanny’s relationship with gambler Nick Arnstein, were heavily fictionalized, this account, by its own admission, has much of the “If a lie sounds better than the truth, tell it” approach as well. After all, both Brice and her “other” husband, Billy Rose, were show biz tyros, and truth isn’t always what sells tickets.
But we do get a broader look at the life and career of Brice in this piece, which starts out in 1936 backstage in a Broadway theater where Fanny (Marya Grandy) is telling the edited version of her life story to a writer (Lance Baker, who also plays Arnstein in other scenes) at the behest of the always scheming Billy (Stef Tovar), who figures Fanny’s recent success in the movie The Great Ziegfeld means Hollywood is waiting for Fanny’s own story to be filmed. Whether that’s true or not, it’s a device for Fanny to flash back to her early days, conning free rides to Coney Island with her brother by acting as if she’s lost her fare, singing Rose of Washington Square at Keeney’s burlesque theater, and hitting the big time when Flo Ziegfeld (Norm Boucher) hires her.
There are some obstacles along the way (like getting fired from a show by impresario George M. Cohan), but Fanny would rather gloss over those. “I won’t tell my life story to be humiliated by the truth,” she says. But even Fanny has to eventually admit that her beloved Nick is a con man and a crook, who took her money, did time in jail, and ultimately abandoned her and their kids.
That makes her hesitant to get involved with the hustling Billy, but he wins her over, and in Act II, we get to see how he did it, not only on a personal level but as her producer once the Ziegfeld days are over. And, of course, much of the tale is told in songs that Brice made famous, from Second Hand Rose to My Man, and other period tunes, as well as some projected videos and photos of the Broadway scene of the times.
Naturally, the actress playing Brice has to sing, dance and act up a storm, but not only that, she has to be able to switch gears quickly and capably to clown around as Baby Snooks or perform Brice’s comic version of the dying swan ballet. Fortunately, Grandy is up to the challenge, making us laugh, empathize with her sorrows and appreciate her vocal abilities throughout an evening where she’s seldom offstage. Her fellow actors, playing a variety of roles, are fine, too, especially when Tovar takes control of the stage as Billy.
The set and costume designs (by Brian Sidney Bembridge and Virgil C. Johnson, respectively), place us squarely in the time and place where Fanny thrived, and the musicians, led by Ian Weinberger, lend excellent support.
Fanny Brice, America’s Funny Girl continues through June 17; for tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.