Music Review by Marilyn Lester
For almost half a century, singer/actor/comedienne Fanny Brice was a megastar. Thirteen years after her 1951 death, Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand, debuted on Broadway, catapulting “Babs” to fame and Fanny to the halls of immortality. Unlike other big vaudeville and stage stars of her time, such as Eva Tanguay, Marilyn Miller, Florence Mills and Nora Bayes, Brice remains in the public consciousness.
And herein lies the problematic part of this recent offering by 92Y’s Lyrics & Lyricists series; entitled The Many Faces of Fanny Brice, Ted Sperling, artistic director, writer and host for the show has chosen to dilute Brice’s legacy with the overarching presence of Streisand.
Although all of the selected tunes are sung sensitively and reliably by Sperling’s tried and true “crew” – Capathia Jenkins, Leslie Kritzer, Faith Prince and Clarke Thorell – most of the songs on the program were taken from Funny Girl and the sequel film Funny Lady. Eight of these songs were never sung by Brice and the others, such as “My Man” (Leslie), “Second Hand Rose,” (Faith and cast), and “I’d Rather Be Blue” (Capathia) have the Streisand (rather than Brice) stamp on them.
At the top of the program, Thorell delivered a spirited version of “Sadie Salome,” a 1909 novelty song written for Brice by the then unknown song plugger, Irving Berlin. The promise of more unique and true faces of Brice seemed hopeful at this point, but alas, was not to be. Choosing to concentrate on Brice’s love-life (three failed marriages), the songs that followed, such as “Blind Date” (Leslie, Clarke and Ted), “When A Woman Loves A Man” (Capathia), and “Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love” (Faith) were tied to this narrative, following the Funny Girl/Funny Lady template.
Fanny Brice was a hugely versatile performer. She could make you laugh, and she could make you weep. She had a large repertoire of “shtick,” in which she assumed the persona of a Yiddish yenta. This was touched on ever so briefly, with Ted at the piano, playing a few bars of “I’m an Indian,” “Pascha,” and “A Bone and a Heel and a Lassie.” There is much more from this treasure trove of Brice novelty tunes to be mined, such as “On the Shores of the Rockaway,” “Irish-Jewish Jubilee,” “Becky Is Back in the Ballet,” and “Mrs. Cohen at the Beach.” These tunes helped Brice become the favorite that she was. They are an enormous part of her appeal and her staying power.
Musicologist Sperling knows this material and its importance, of course. The choice to make Brice more commercial for this L&L series deprived its audience of the opportunity to actually know the many faces of Brice. The usual multi-media which has become a staple of the L&L series was also missing, save for a loop of a few images projected during intermission. The narration by the personable Sperling wasn’t sufficiently inspired to connect the singers and their songs with complete engagement.
Arrangements for the program were devised by music director and pianist Jeffrey Klitz, who seemed stuck in ballad mode, giving most of the songs an odd sameness. The musicians – Antoine Silverman on violin, Todd Groves on reeds/woodwinds, and David Ratajcak on drums – played expert accompaniment. The very talented Kevin Kuhn gave the show much needed pizzazz with spirited playing on multiple guitars and banjo. Orchestrations were by Jeffrey Klitz and Brent Frederick, and lighting design by John Kelly. Stage manager is Lori Rosecrans Wekselblatt and associate stage director, David Eggers.
For those interested in an entertaining evening of music and song, Ziegfeld Girl: The Many Faces of Fanny Brice will deliver the goods well enough. For those wanting more, not so much.
Ziegfeld Girl: The Many Faces of Fanny Brice, May 3-5, at the at the 92nd Street Y, Theresa L. Kaufmann Concert Hall, 1395 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10128. 212-415-5500 www.92y.org