Funny Girl could be the ultimate vehicle to herald the arrival of a young musical theater actress—as it famously did for a vocalist who has since become such an icon that her name doesn't need mentioning here. In keeping with tradition, get ready for the latest introduction of a very funny and talented girl.
World, say "hello gorgeous" to Kristin Dausch, who's giving a star-making performance in Lyric Stage's eloquently paced, lovingly performed and altogether mind-blowing revival of the 1964 musical.
Dausch, a recent graduate of New York's American Musical and Dramatic Academy, is only 22—the same age as Barbra Streisand (invoking that name can't be helped) was when she broke out in the role of Fanny Brice, the Jewish entertainer with inimitable comedic chops and a voice like none other. Not only does Dausch sing the part like a dream—she nails all the huge belts and the silvery, whispered lyrics and never succumbs to a Barbra impersonation—but Dausch has a natural comic flair that's so necessary for this part. And yes, charisma, acting skills and all that stuff a gal needs if she's ever to be born a star—she's got it.
It's no small feat when an actress can sing songs that are well-known signatures of another performer and make the audience temporarily remove the previous versions from their mind. But toward the end of the first act, when Fanny sings "People" and the wealthy, handsome gambler Nicky Arnstein (Christopher Pinnella) falls for her, there really is nothing a theatergoer can do except stare and stifle the "gulp" sound in the back of the throat and fight back tears (to no avail). She also adds in wonderful quirks, those goofy little outbursts that a naturally funny person can't help but interject into off-the-stage moments and, inappropriately, into serious conversations.
Funny Girl is the rarely performed musical with an unforgettable score by Jule Styne and terrific lyrics by Bob Merrill and a book by Isobel Lennart, based on the true story of Fanny Brice. She was a Ziegfeld Follies star who never completely overcame the fact that she wasn't (or didn't consider herself) pretty. While she had more than enough talent to compensate, what most helped her fear of looking ordinary was the love of a man like Arnstein.
This production is Lyric's fourth revival in two years that breathes new life into a classic via a full orchestra (30-45 pieces), following Carousel, West Side Story and The King and I. (The spring of 2010 will see a similar treatment of Bye, Bye Birdie and a concert staging with original orchestrations for Show Boat.) Here, conductor/music director Jay Dias achieves outstanding interplay from his pit orchestra with the actors onstage. Hearing all those strings, woodwinds and brass sounds in a musical is uncommon nowadays (too expensive), but it makes all the difference.
Whereas King had the perk of lavish sets and spectacle and West Side Story had those iconic songs and characters (and both featured masterful dancing to Jerome Robbins' best-known Broadway choreography), Funny Girl is more similar to Lyric's Carousel. Both are musicals with considerable merit that simply aren't revived enough. And, in both cases, director Cheryl Denson scored a triumph through clear storytelling and a cast that understands the demands of their roles.
Dausch is onstage for almost the entire show, and she effortlessly carries it. Perhaps that's because she doesn't really need to carry it—the other main players and ensemble are in fine form, as well. Pinnella, who was Billy Bigelow in Lyric's Carousel, doesn't have as heavy of a role here. That doesn't mean there isn't layering (and stunning singing) in his performance as a man working through his own demons.
Lois Sonnier Hart, as Fanny's mother, and especially Connie Coit the busybody Mrs. Strakosh, are hilarious in scene-stealing character roles. Alexander Ross, who has made all kinds of splashes on local stages this year, has a priceless comedy moment (not to mention beautiful vocals) as the Ziegfeld Tenor in the scene where Fanny puts her own oddball stamp on her first big performance for Florenz Ziegfeld (Mark Oristano).
Then there's Jeremy Dumont as Fanny's friend and longtime admirer Eddie Ryan. He was Action in Lyric's West Side Story, but Eddie is a role more suited for his comic timing, impressive hoofing abilities and rubbery Donald O'Connor-esque physicality.
As tightly as Dias conducts the individual orchestra musicians for this beautiful music, director Denson achieves the same feat with her cast. It's almost embarrassing how much we critics continue to gush over Lyric's full-orchestra musical stagings, but honestly, no other musical theater company in North Texas is playing on this level.
One could nitpick over a few minor bobbles on opening night, not to mention cheaper-looking sets and costumes (by Bryan Wofford and Drenda Lewis, respectively) than Lyric typically exhibits, but why rain on this parade?
As grand marshal of that event, Dausch is ready for her close-up.