Too many of the Broadway backers had reportedly changed their minds about the $12 million project before it even opened in LA. From news accounts, at least a few of these backers questioned whether the planned star, Lauren Ambrose, had the vocal chops and the mass-media fame to sing “I’m the Greatest Star” convincingly, not to mention all the other numbers in the Jule Styne/Bob Merrill score. They apparently doubted that Ambrose could be the new Barbra Streisand, perhaps forgetting that Streisand herself wasn’t especially well-known before she starred in the original Funny Girl.
For LA audiences, the incident illustrated the pitfalls that can occur when an LA production becomes entirely too dependent on whether enough money will be raised to mount a continuation of the show on the other side of the country.
But what if CTG could become the beneficiary of an already mounted Funny Girl tryout at a smaller local theater, rather than slavishly playing the role of the theater that presents the first tryout on behalf of all those people across the country?
Wouldn’t transferring a locally-developed Funny Girl to CTG be easier and perhaps even less expensive to CTG than relying on Broadway investors who really don’t care about LA audiences? If the locally produced version took off at CTG, Broadway backers could still resume their interest in it, but it wouldn’t have all those Broadway expectations weighing it down from the get-go.
This situation seems to be staring CTG in the face right now, as word is spreading about the phenomenal performance that Nicole Parker is giving as Fanny Brice in the 3-D Theatricals revival of Funny Girl — playing one more weekend in Fullerton, followed by one additional weekend in Redondo Beach.
The Irvine-reared Parker is probably best known as one of the stars of the sketch comedy TV series MADtv (2003-2008). Sketch comedy — whether in the theater or on TV — is probably an excellent training ground for the kind of broad comedy that Fanny Brice herself performed in burlesque and the Ziegfeld Follies nearly a century ago. And, judging from the belly laughs that erupted from me on Sunday in Fullerton, Parker is indeed a remarkably “funny girl” when she performs onstage shtick in the Fullerton production.
But can she sing? Well, after MADtv, Parker played Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway and on tour. It’s one of the most vocally demanding roles in the current Broadway repertoire. I didn’t see her in Wicked, but after seeing her in Funny Girl, I want to see her in Wicked too — or just about any other vehicle that will give me the opportunity to listen to her sing.
Early in 2011, the CTG website posted an audition notice for the role of Fanny Brice in its the soon-to-be-doomed production. It began with these encouraging words: “No agent? No Equity card? No problem!” Apparently this was written before the producers realized that “no fame” would indeed be a problem for a would-be star of a 2012 Funny Girl on Broadway. The post is still there as I write this, although I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s taken down after someone at CTG reads this column. But here’s the key description of what the Funny Girl producers were seeking:
“The woman who will play Fanny Brice must have an unforgettably thrilling voice with a big range (E below middle C to a high F; Mezzo with a high mix or belt) and great comic skill, masking deep insecurity and pain. She is a once-in-a-generation talent, and must have excellent comedic timing.”
CTG, meet Nicole Parker.
Actually, I suspect that CTG has already met Parker. It has been rumored that Parker was in the running for the role of Fanny in that 2011 non-production
I have no idea how Ambrose might have handled the role. But if I had been casting it solely on the basis of their previous claims to fame — Ambrose for TV’s Six Feet Under and Awake and Sing! and a couple of Shakespeares in the Park (in other words, no high-pressure sketch comedy, no musicals) and Parker for MADtv and Wicked — I would have gone with Parker. And that, of course, would have been long before I actually saw and heard Parker bringing Fanny to vibrant life in Fullerton.
If CTG were to now rush to Fullerton and strike a deal, Michael Matthews should also be part of it. Yes, the director known here for his many recent achievements in small theaters has staged what seems to be his first production in a larger Southern California theater, and he has done a terrific job. He’s a prime example of the kind of award-winning LA director who is usually overlooked at CTG, in its attempts to keep its connections to New York on track.
The just-announced Ovation nominations might even provide a little extra incentive for CTG to cooperate with 3-D in finally fulfilling its earlier plan to bring Funny Girl to LA audiences. The 3-D production of Parade from earlier this year just won a dozen Ovation nominations — more than those for any other 2012-13 show, including any single CTG production. That’s as many nominations as CTG’s largely imported production of Parade earned in 2010. Judging from what’s on stage, 3-D is no community-theater operation.
So it would make sense for CTG to cultivate a relationship with such a quickly rising company as 3-D, especially as 3-D’s Orange County base is sufficiently far from LA that there probably isn’t much overlap in their separate audiences. The same couldn’t be said about the late Reprise, which was the last vestige of a professional musicals-dedicated theater company on a level above 99 seats in the northern half of LA County. By the way, Reprise’s longtime musical director Gerald Sternbach wields the baton at Funny Girl.
Perhaps CTG is shrewd enough to have already been quietly looking into these possibilities? I doubt it, but I’d gladly suspend my disbelief. In the meantime, CTG brass, do you want me to send you a link to the Google Maps directions on how to get from downtown LA to Fullerton?
**All Funny Girl production photos by Isaac James.
Funny Girl, Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, then moves to Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center, 1935 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Redondo Beach Sep 27-29, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Sep 29. www.3DTshows.com. 714-589-2770.
Funny Girl isn’t the only musical about a performer from the Fanny Brice (1891-1951) era that’s playing right now. At the Colony in Burbank, Daniel Beaty’s Breath and Imagination opened Saturday, providing a look at a very different contemporary of Brice’s, Roland Hayes (1887-1977).
Hayes, the son of ex-slaves, became a star on the classical music circuit at roughly the same time that Brice became a star on Broadway. This was long before African Americans were known for singing Schumann as well as spirituals.
The two productions both use flashbacks as a structural framework. Just as Funny Girl’s Fanny is looking back on the eve of re-uniting with her husband who is being released from prison, Breath and Imagination’s Roland is looking back on the eve of opening an integrated music school in his native Georgia — in 1942.
Fanny is about to receive an emotional jolt. Roland has just received a physical jolt — he was beaten while investigating the arrest of his wife and daughter for shopping for shoes in a whites-only arena. Both shows offer prominent roles for the singer’s mothers.
At this point, however, the two productions veer in somewhat opposition directions. Breath and Imagination remains a chamber musical, with only three onstage performers, a single set filling in for many settings, and no intermission. Funny Girl is Broadway-big.
Beaty’s play relies on, yes, breath and imagination. The breath is from the singers — primarily Elijah Rock as Roland. His isn’t a performance of Brice-style belting. It mixes spirituals with a few recitative-style numbers, written by Beaty, with excerpts from Schumann, Scarlatti, Gluck and Fauré in their original languages. Rock is classically trained, and his singing is a joy. The script makes a big deal about Hayes finding his own voice, and Rock’s voice has a timbre which is distinctive in its own way, hardly by-the-book in any of the genres employed here.
The imagination relied on by this play has to be supplied primarily by the audience. The show covers nearly 50 years in 90 minutes, so we have to fill in a lot of the gaps. Parts of the script, especially near the beginning, steer precipitously close to an instant, empty sentimentality. Roland’s mother (Karan Kendrick), half-angel and half-human, is the primary victim of this tendency. The ending, too, feels artificially upbeat.
The third actor on stage, Kevin Ashworth, is not only the piano accompanist but is called on to play a panoply of quick-sketch roles, from cracker racist to Roland’s father to male and female voice teachers to…the king of England. While Ashworth’s facility in these roles, as well as on the keyboard, is impressive and intermittently amusing, assigning all these roles to one man struck me as primarily an economic instead of an aesthetic decision on Beaty’s part. Still, given the problems with the script, Saundra McClain’s staging and Rahn Coleman’s musical direction are masterful.
Of course the Colony has to think about economics too, having survived a near-death experience last year. Make sure you allow enough time to read artistic director Barbara Beckley’s program note, in which she goes into considerable detail about how the Colony’s ability to start a new season is due in part to a grant from the Marilyn P. and Wayne H. Kohl Memorial Fund — thanks to some enterprising research and connections from the Colorado-based father of Colony executive director Trent Steelman. Under these circumstances, listening to Beckley welcome the audience back for another season was almost as joyful as listening to Rock sing.
Even with its flaws, Breath and Imagination is not one of those familiar small shows that has been making the rounds of so many midsize theaters — it requires some imagination to have found it and to have programmed its West Coast premiere. It’s an indication of why it’s important to keep the Colony breathing and imagining.
**All Breath and Imagination production photos by Michael Lamont.
Breath and Imagination: The Story of Roland Hayes, Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third Street, Burbank. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes Oct 13. www.ColonyTheatre.org. 818-508-1754.