Review: 'Funny Girl' a hit

Camelot Theatre Company in Talent seems determined to make this last season in "the old feed store" the most memorable. As its last musical production before moving next door into the new and larger venue, Camelot is offering a revival of the hit '60s Broadway show "Funny Girl."

Although Camelot Artistic Director Livia Genise has not shied away from big musicals in the past ("Zorba," "1776," "Man of La Mancha"), it is pretty gutsy of her to produce this one.

First of all, the show is indelibly identified with its original star, Barbra Streisand. Genise's challenge was finding an actress with a great voice, real acting ability and a tremendous amount of sheer presence to play the lead. Genise found her perfect "Funny Girl" in Rose Passione.

Bravo to Passione for the courage to take on this role. She has the voice, the expressive face and the acting talent to play the brash Fanny Brice character and make it her own.

And although the play focuses on Brice, it has at least 32 other characters. Even with actors doubling and trebling roles, there are still about 25 people in this cast. Nonetheless, Genise as director keeps the action focused and the characters distinct — no small feat in a space as tiny as Camelot's present theater.

She is ably assisted by choreographer Audrey Flint. Flint manages to take this impressively large cast and create hoofers, tappers, showgirls and even a line of high-stepping chorines.

Remarkable as well is the five-piece orchestra — two keyboards, woodwinds, trumpet and percussion with music direction by Karl Iverson — all hidden behind a curtain stage left while belting out the overture and production numbers.

"Funny Girl" opened on Broadway in 1964 and Streisand reprised the role in the 1968 movie. The work was commissioned by Hollywood film producer Ray Stark, who was married to Brice's daughter Frances. Jule Styne wrote the music, Bob Merrill the lyrics and the book was by Isobel Lennart.

I doubt there are many people who haven't heard the music from this show. "People Who Need People" was recorded by Streisand and became a hit before the show even opened. "Don't Rain on My Parade" has entered into the American musical lexicon and rivals any Rodgers and Hammerstein tune from "South Pacific" or "Oklahoma."

"Funny Girl" tells of comedienne Fanny Brice's career rise in the years prior to and after World War I. Born into an immigrant Jewish family on New York's Lower East Side, she started out in burlesque at the age of 13 as the "comic relief" between the musical numbers where leggy chorus girls strutted in abbreviated costumes. (Legend has it that Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld chose his "Follies" showgirls by dropping the stage curtain to hip level and having the hopefuls walk behind it so he could check out their legs.)

Brice had a fabulous voice and a brash attitude but she was definitely not a beauty. She was "discovered" by Ziegfeld in 1916 and thereafter headlined most of his shows.

"Funny Girl" details Brice's break into the Follies — with much devoted help from a hoofer pal Eddie Ryan (played with charm by Daniel Stephens) and sarcastic support from her mother (Pam Ward) — but the play soon settles into an account of Brice's romance with a worldly professional gambler, Nicky Arnstein. As Brice becomes rich and famous, Arnstein's success with racehorses and roulette tables declines. In a desperate attempt to equal his wife's earning power and prestige, he turns to white collar crime and goes to prison.

The Arnstein role always has been problematic. The actor who plays Arnstein has to be absolutely drop-dead handsome, irresistibly charming and convincingly in love with the awkward Brice. In the original Broadway production, Arnstein was played by Sydney Chaplin, who was perfect for the role. The movie cast Omar Sharif, who was a disaster.

Camelot's production has Mark B. Ropers in the Arnstein role. Ropers is good-looking and has a nice singing voice but he is no match for Passione's energy and charisma. His Arnstein is nearly overwhelmed.

The rest of the cast is peopled by Camelot regulars who are reliably professional and an actor new to Camelot, the animation TV series and video game voiceover star Tom Wyner, who stands out in the small but pivotal role of Florenz Ziegfeld.

Production values, as always, are impeccable. The detailed and inventive costumes are by Barbara Rains. Don Zastoupil designed the set, Brian O'Connor the sound and video and Bart Grady the lighting.

"Funny Girl" plays at Camelot through April 10. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. For more information and ticket availability, call 541-535-5250.

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