Beauty Behind the Humor | “Funny Girl” @ Conundrum @ The Colony

Funny Girl (Conundrum at The Colony)userpic=colonySo shows are very frequently revived — both on Broadway, and in Regional and amateur productions. Hairspray, Caberet, Sound of Music, and similar chart toppers — you’ll find them everywhere. Other shows — although hits in their day — are almost never remounted. I’m still waiting for a local remount of my favorite musical — Two Gentlemen of Verona — and The Rothschilds only had its first revisical since the original. The reason for this differs. For some, the material seems dated — TGOV is one of those, yet Hair gets revived. Some had troubled books. For some, it is the difficulty of finding the right lead to fit the shoes of the original. You’ll likely never see Schwartz’s The Magic Show again for that reason — Doug Henning was unique.

A show in this latter category is the Tony award winning Funny Girl , with book by Isobel Lennart, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Bob Merrill. It was produced on Broadway in 1963 by Ray Stark, directed by Garson Kanin, and starred Barbra Streisand (FB) in her second (and last) major Broadway role. Streisand went on to show in the 1967 film version, and was the personification of the lead character, Fanny Brice. After that…. the show disappeared. No revivals, few remounts. There was talk of a Broadway revival starting at the Ahmanson a few years ago, but that petered out. There was a recent West End revisical that was well received; it is unknown if it is coming across the pond.

So when I saw that a local company (Conundrum Theatre Co (FB)) was producing a revival of Funny Girl, I started to want to get tickets to go. I thought it would be multiple dates in October, which was already getting pretty full. It ended up being just one weekend, and I was unable to go. But that wasn’t the end of the show. Arrangements were made, and the show moved to The Colony Theatre (FB) in Burbank. The Colony, where we subscribed, had gone dark earlier in the year, and was looking for visiting productions to fill its space. Barbara Beckley of the Colony sent out email to the subscribers about the show, and this was the impetus for us to redeem our last Colony subscription ticket and squeeze in the show, the last Friday of its new performance run that ends November 20.

Returning to the Colony itself was sad. I’m referring to the physical facility. Gone was the celebration of the long producing history of the company. Gone were the various props and awards that filled the facility. Gone were the awards. Gone were the construction pictures. Gone were the familiar company faces, such as Barbara at the welcome desk. It was clear that the Colony, as it was, will not be back. The curtain has come down. Sad, so sad. This has been a very bad year for theatre companies in Southern California.

Luckily, this has been a good year for productions; and this production more than made up for the sadness at seeing the once great Colony down. The mix of up-and-coming theatre folks and seasoned local professionals (there were no AEA credits in the program) worked well. Conundrum Theatre Co (FB), for whom this was their inaugural fully-staged musical, did a very good job with the show with only a few technical problems, especially given their limited rehearsal time. I’m glad that this show ended up at The Colony; perhaps it is a signal that 2017 may see a return to theatre to the stage of the Colony. I certainly hope to see more Conundrum there.

As the show itself hasn’t been around much since the 1960s, you likely are unaware of its plot other than it starred Barbra Streisand. Funny Girl tells a highly fictionalized version of comedienne Fanny Brice’s romance and marriage to gambler Nicky Arnstein. It does this by presenting Brice on a stage awaiting Arnstein’s release from prison. The bulk of the show is a flashback telling of the story, returning to the present at the end. It begins with Brice’s first appears at the Keeney Theatre. It shows her first meeting with Arnstein, her transfer to the Ziegfield Follies, her subsequent marriage, and then the failure thereof. In some ways, this foreshadows the story Streisand would play again in her movie A Star is Born. She rises in  fame, eclipses him, and his ego and traditional male roles doom everything. You can read a much more detailed synopsis on the Wikipedia page.

However, this is a very fictionalized version of Brice’s story. She wasn’t the innocent when she married him (he was her second marriage); they actually lived together for six years before getting married. He had been to jail before the marriage, and actually sponged off of her for the entire thing. His jail stints were longer, and her performance history was quite differently. But in the theatre, the story becomes the reality; the truth of the story be damned.

In any case, the book is what it is (although Harvey Fierstein — who loves to doctor shows — doctored the West End version). It has its structural problems — the first act is far too long; the second doesn’t have the energy of the first. It was troubled in development, and like Mack and Mabel, does not end happily ever after. It is also a star vehicle, and requires a fairly unique mix of talent to be successful. Most actresses cannot carry it off. It requires a mix of physical comedy, comedic presence, dance, a belting voice, and the correct ethnicity. This is not a Kelli O’Hara show. It was ultimately built for Streisand, and there are few like her.

Luckily, it was in the leads that this show excelled. Moreover, I’m saying that in clear knowledge that we had the understudy as our lead. Victoria Strafuss (FB)’s portrayal of Fanny Brice was spot on. She brought good comedic timing, a talent for voices, faces, and physical comedy, and an excellent and strong singing voice to the stage. One of the hardest things for an actress and trained dancer to do is be bad; yet Strafuss was able to do this in the scenes with the rest of the ensemble, cleverly being just a little off to show how Brice wasn’t the typical chorine. She was able to bring back her grace when it was needed, showing that it was indeed an act. She also had a very strong voice and was more than capable with her numbers in the show. Given that she has some major numbers — “People”, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” — combined with some numbers that required extensive comedy timing — “You Are Woman, I Am Man”, “Sadie, Sadie”, “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” — that’s a high compliment. Coming into the show, I ran into another audience member who was disappointed that we had the “understudy”. I hope he was as impressed by her performance as I was. Ms. Strafuss is someone I hope to see more of on the Southern California stages. (The role is normally portrayed by Jackie Brenneman (FB))

Her object d’amour, Nick Arnstein, was portrayed by Michael Cortez (FB). Although he wasn’t Omar Sharif, he had the requisite style, flair, and voice to pull off the role, and had a good chemistry with Ms. Strafuss. The two worked well together. My wife, when asked about Michael, thought his portrayal was “suitably sleezy”. Given the character, that’s high praise :-).

The main supporting roles — Eddie Ryan and Mrs. (Rose) Brice — were also portrayed quite well. Steven Duncan Sass (FB)’s Eddie Ryan was a very strong dancer and gave off a very affable chemistry, together with a very nice singing voice. Alison Korman (FB)’s Rose Brice had the right air of a mother, and had a good singing voice and stage presence. The two worked well together in their join number “Find Yourself a Man”. In smaller supporting roles were Mark Melo (FB) [Tom Keeney/Renaldi], John Hamilton Scott [Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr], Tina Oakland Scott [Mrs. O’Malley], Meggan Taylor (FB) [Mrs. Strakosh], and Anne Wendell/FB [Mrs. Meeker]. All brought appropriate characterizations to their roles.

Rounding out the ensemble were Ashley Byrd [Ziegfeld Dancer / Ensemble], Bernie Escarga/FB [John / Featured Ensemble]; Catriona Fray (FB) [Dance Swing / Ensemble Dancer]; Alexandria Gates (FB) [Ziegfeld Dancer / Ensemble]; Dahyla Glick (FB) [Emma / Ziegfeld Dancer / Ensemble]; Kathleen MacCutcheon (FB) [Mimsy / Ziegfeld Dancer / Ensemble]; Amy Mendonca (FB) [Ziegfeld Dancer / Ensemble]; Nick Mestakides (FB) [Tenor / Ziegfeld Dancer / Ensemble]; Melissa Padilla/FB [Ziegfeld Dancer / Ensemble]; Amanda Jane Salmon (FB) [Jenny / Ziegfeld Dancer / Ensemble]; April Sheets/FB [Ziegfeld Dancer / Ensemble]; and Jenny Torgerson (FB) [Ziegfeld Dancer / Ensemble / Swing]. It is difficult to identify exactly who is who in the ensemble, but I do want to make a few comments. When I see an ensemble, not only do I want to see steps executed right, but I want to see the joy the actors have on stage being radiated out into the audience. I want to see them becoming who they think their character is, as opposed to an anonymous dancer. With that in mind, I’d like to call out a few ensemble members for particular note. There was a short dark-haired member who I believe was Amy Mendonca (FB) who particularly caught my eye for the joyful smile she had during her numbers; this was more than the painted on smile you sometimes see — this young lady was particularly having the time of her life there on stage, and it was just a joy to see and share. There was also a tall blond member, who I believe was Kathleen MacCutcheon (FB), who did very well with the rifles in the Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat number.  Nick Mestakides (FB) was great as the tenor in the “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” number.

Stamford Hill was the understudy for Florenz Ziegfeld.

The production was directed by Bryan Snodgrass (FB), and as usual I have difficulty determining what was the actor, and what was the director. Still, the director did have the notion of simplifying the production to emphasize the flashback aspects of it; he also handled overall movement well and did a good job of ensuring the proper characterizations resulted. This was augmented by Toni Fuller (FB)’s choreography, which was simplified a bit due to the nature of the Colony stage, the number of actors, and the varying skill level. I found the dance numbers enjoyable, particularly “Coronet Man” and “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat”. Jenny Torgerson (FB) was the dance captain; Mindy Copeland (FB) was the Tap Coordinator, and Angela Tousley (FB) was the Color Guard Consultant.

Music was under the direction of Ryan Luévano (FB), assisted by Michael Griffin (FB). The orchestra was situated on the side balconies of the Colony, which I had never seen in use before. In general, the orchestra could use a little more energy (especially in the overture), and I heard perhaps one or two off notes. No biggie on that, but there was a greater problem with the lights from the Orchestra shining into the eyes of the audience members. Shade the lights on those music stands, folks, so they shine down, not out. The orchestra consisted of: Sage Barton (FB), Sara Jones (FB), Beth Reno, and Yu Ting Wu (FB) on Violins; Thom Fountain, Ki Yeon Kim/FB, and Marylin Winkle on Cello; Michael Griffin (FB) on Piano; Cody Samuel Vaughn/FB and Felipe Guzman Martinez/FB on Drums; Jeff Markgraf on Bass; Katherine Hildebrant/FB on Reed I; Dan Gonda (FB) on Reed II; Carlos Herrera/FB on Reed III; and Harold York on Reed IV.

Turning to the remainder of the production and creative team. The scenic design was by Emily Mae Heller (FB), who also was the Producer. The nature of the Colony stage (slightly thrust, no curtain) combined with what I am sure was a limited production budget meant that the scenic aspect was simple: a dressing table to the side, some tables and such that could be brought on as necessary, and a wooden structure along the back that held all the props, much as a bookshelf would hold the props backstage (and hence, suggested the backstage and flashback nature of the show). Not realistic as one might see on a big-budget Broadway show, but it worked. What had more problems was the execution of Jay Lee‘s Sound Design, and Kevin Vasquez (FB)’s Lighting Design. With respect to the sound, at the beginning the microphones were very muffled, and only sounded right when the additional reverb was added for the “Nicky Armstein”. As for the lighting, there were two factors that tended to distract: first, there was a collection of Lekos above the main stage that were programmed to be flashing on and off in various dance numbers — this served to distract vs. augment. Additionally, there were problems with the follow spot not always following well. The costume design was by Sasha Markgraf/FB, and mostly worked. Most of the issues were with ensemble costumes. There was an early number with the ensemble in black leotards where white undergarments were visible around the legs; there was a later Ziegfeld Follies number where there was an odd camisole that just wouldn’t have worked on a real stage. There were also some chronological inconsistencies, such as camouflage leggings that would not have been used in that time period. However, I’m willing to suspend disbelief, as I understand production budgets. There is no credit for makeup; Ariana Castiglia/FB was the wig designer.  Mandee Mitchell was the stage manger, assisted by Owen Panno (FB).

Given how long it has taken me to write this, there are three more performances of Funny Girl: today at 8pm, and tomorrow at 3pm and 8pm. Tickets are available through Ovation Tix, and discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. I found it enjoyable.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB), the  Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, and a mini-subscription at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB).  The Chromolume 2017 season looks particularly good: Zanna Don’t (Tim Acito, January 13 – February 5), Hello Again (Michael John LaChiusa, May 5- May 28), and Pacific Overtures (Stephen Sondheim, September 15 – October 8) — all for only $60). Past subscriptions have included  The Colony Theatre (FB) (which went dormant in 2016), and Repertory East Playhouse (“REP”) (FB) in Newhall (which entered radio silence in 2016). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:  November concludes with Little Women at the Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim. December starts with Into the Woods at Nobel Middle School, and staged concert of Wonderful Town being performed by the LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. The next week brings the CSUN Jazz Band at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), and Amalie at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The third week of December brings  The King and I at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). December concludes with an unspecified movie on Christmas day; and a return to our New Years Eve Gaming Party.

Turning to 2017, January currently is quiet, with just a single hold date for Zanna Don’t at the Chromolume Theatre (FB). February 2017 gets back to being busy: with Zoot Suit at the Mark Taper Forum (FB) the first weekend. The second weekend brings 33 Variations at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend has a hold for the WGI Winter Regionals. The last weekend in February brings Finding Neverland at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). March quiets down a bit — at least as currently scheduled — with the MRJ Man of the Year dinner,  Fun Home at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) at the beginning of the month, and An American in Paris at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) at the end of the month.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Although we can’t make it, I also recommend the 10th Anniversary Production of The Brain from Planet X at LACC. Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.