Bravo to the Brave: Beanie Feldstein Steps Capably Into Barbra Streisand’s Shoes

At a recent ‘Funny Girl’ preview, there was a sense of the crowd rooting for both the character and the star that was nothing short of thrilling.

Beanie Feldstein and Ramin Karimloo in ‘Funny Girl.’ Matthew Murphy, 2022

There surely isn’t a braver soul treading the boards right now than Beanie Feldstein. Apparently not content to rest on her laurels as a thriving screen actress and “it” girl, Jonah Hill’s kid sister is attempting a feat so daunting that no one has ever tried it: playing the “Funny Girl” role that on Broadway has only been inhabited by Barbra Streisand. 

The part of Fanny Brice was distinctly suited to the young Ms. Streisand’s gifts — not only her velvety, soaring soprano, but an ability to mine both comedy and pathos that, as fans know, made her more interested in acting than in singing. 

Of course, when it was announced just more than a decade ago that director Bartlett Sher, a masterful interpreter of great American musicals, had chosen “Six Feet Under” alumna Lauren Ambrose to star in what was supposed to be the first Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” — a production that, sadly, never came to fruition — the first question on everyone’s lips was: Can she sing? The former opera student can indeed, as anyone who saw her in Mr. Sher’s gorgeous staging of “My Fair Lady” several years later could attest.

Kurt Csolak, Beanie Feldstein, and Justin Prescott. Matthew Murphy, 2022

Ms. Feldstein is no stranger to musical theater; she was adorable and, yes, funny in a featured role in Jerry Zaks’s exuberant 2017 revival of “Hello, Dolly!” And she is a competent singer, possessed of a sweet tone, not unpleasant nasality, and a capacity for belting that are all suited to the role. (These qualities are notably enhanced by the expert amplification available to Broadway performers nowadays, for which Brian Nonan, sound designer for this “Funny Girl,” deserves mention.)

Yet after listening to Ms. Feldstein tackle the high-octane vehicles that composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill built for their Fanny — particularly the ravishing ballad “People” and the showstopper “Don’t Rain on My Parade” — you may wish this leading lady were less concerned about her technical limitations. Her delivery can at times have the cautious, self-conscious quality of a voice student marking a piece, without enough of the dynamic or rhythmic fluidity that make a song emotionally compelling.

That’s a shame, because Ms. Feldstein’s performance is, overall, one of utter emotional commitment, and radiant for it. At once deliciously feisty and deeply vulnerable, her Fanny Brice holds the audience in the palm of her hands for the show’s more than two-and-a-half-hour duration, during which the actress is almost always on stage. At a recent preview, there was a sense of the crowd rooting for both the character and the star that was nothing short of thrilling.

This “Funny Girl” has much else to recommend it, from a piquant but faithful revised book by Harvey Fierstein to the performances of Ms. Feldstein’s co-stars, directed with great warmth and wit by Michael Mayer. The handsome bari-tenor Ramin Karimloo, after suffering through stiff, joyless roles in “Anastasia” and “Les Misérables,” finally gets a Broadway showcase for his comedic and dramatic prowess as Nicky Arnstein, the inveterate gambler who captures Fanny’s heart.

Jane Lynch is by turns drily hilarious and unexpectedly moving as Fanny’s stoical but concerned mother, while Jared Grimes, as the comedienne’s patient friend and coach, charms everyone onstage and off with his affable presence and superior tap skills, showcased to exhilarating effect in Ayodele Casel’s whimsical choreography.

Jared Grimes and Jane Lynch in ‘Funny Girl.’ Matthew Murphy, 2022

The dancing that doesn’t require tap shoes is overseen by Ellenore Scott, a rising young choreographer with a keen sense of old show-biz glamor that’s also captured in David Zinn’s scenic design and Susan Hilferty’s costumes. Whether representing Henry Street in Brooklyn or a plush hotel suite in Baltimore or the stage of the Ziegfeld Follies, the production introduces us to people and places bursting with color, both literally and figuratively.

While Ms. Feldstein may not be the greatest star one could ever imagine to carry “Funny Girl,” she proves herself most worthy of this company and these surroundings. So let her, like the song says, blow her horn — without anxiety. By all indications, the world is cheering her on.

The New York Sun

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