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LA Theater Review

Funny Girl

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Though most 1960s Broadway blockbusters are continually produced, "Funny Girl," based on the life of beloved entertainer Fanny Brice (1891–1951), is a notable exception. Following an upcoming staging at the Ahmanson Theatre, the classic musical is expected to finally have its first Broadway revival. Meanwhile, Downey Civic Light Opera offers its take on the vintage show, yielding entertaining results.

The explanation frequently offered for this musical's scarcity of revivals is the indelible stamp that Barbra Streisand put on the starring role in the original 1964 production and her subsequent Oscar-winning film portrayal. How many performers have the chops to conjure the essence of a superstar like Brice, simultaneously competing with our memories of Streisand's galvanic performance? In the Downey production, Karen Volpe captures the self-deprecating wit that makes the role as endearing as it is amusing. She astutely avoids mimicking Streisand, playing the role less manically—more of a love-hungry waif than a perpetual clown. She also has the requisite voice, belting out heart-wrenching torch songs ("The Music That Makes Me Dance") and acing zany comic routines ("Tat-a-Tat-Tat"). Yet in some early numbers, such as "I'm the Greatest Star"—in which a knock-'em-dead luminary is supposedly born before our eyes—Volpe hadn't quite let loose on opening weekend. It wasn't convincing that a jaded impresario like Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (John F. Briganti) would be bowled over by Brice's talent. Part of the problem derives from awkward staging at times. Fanny's pregnant-bride number, "His Love Makes Me Beautiful," isn't smoothly set up for its visual gag to fully connect.

Volpe shares a fine chemistry with Robert Standley, who is dashing and in tip-top voice as gambling wheeler-dealer Nick Arnstein, who married Brice, then divorced her following his imprisonment. The poignant love story has genuine resonance here, thanks to these lead performances and Marsha Moode's sensitive direction. Sandra Tucker is warm and witty as Fanny's firm but supportive mother, and Peter Schueller is charming as fleet-footed song-and-dance man Eddie Ryan. The impressive ensemble excels in choreographer Denai Lovrien's elaborate Ziegfeld Follies numbers. Jimmy Vann's fine music direction and conducting support the zesty score from composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill—Styne's finest work next to "Gypsy."

Presented by Downey Civic Light Opera at the Downey Theatre, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd., Downey. June 3–19. Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. (562) 923-1714. www.downeyciviclightopera.org.

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