It takes real guts to debut a Fanny Brice/Funny Girl show while negative reviews of the Broadway revival continue to land squarely on the shoulders of its, let’s face it, inadequate star. Vocalist Josephine Sanges avoids comparison by framing her presentation in real life connections and by interpreting songs associated with Barbra Streisand on an elemental, human scale. “I’m a very old soul,” she tells us, while Fanny Brice was ahead of her time with confident independence. “We meet somewhere in the middle.”
Though the evening opens with clarion songs from Funny Girl and Funny Lady, it takes wing with Brice’s “Quainty Dainty Me” (1939 Burt Kalmar/Harry Ruby): “I’m so demure/I blush when I undress myself,” Sanges sings channeling the icon. She’s simply marvelous – Yiddish accent impeccable, comic timing adroit, gestures organic.
Fania Borach/Fanny Brice (1891-1951) was the daughter of immigrants who owned a saloon. At 17, she dropped out of school to appear in burlesque – before it was naughty. By 19, she was headlining The Ziegfeld Follies. Irving Berlin, we’re told, inadvertently spotlit a new stage persona by suggesting his “Sadie Salome Go Home” would work better with a distinctly Jewish accent. “Who put in your head such motions?!” Sadie’s boyfriend kibitzes from the audience of her performance as Salome. Arms bent, fists turned in at her waist, Sanges nimbly segues into character. Every “Oy!” is different.
“In 1995, I was offered a part I hardly knew existed…” leads to the artist’s story of having starred in an amateur production of Funny Girl. She was a busy wife and mother when the theater bug bit. “Don’t Rain On My Parade” makes sense here. Knees bend for emphasis, shoulders rise, eyes crinkle, phrases shoot out. A uniquely modulated “Who Are You Now?” becomes a song of self-questioning. (Both Funny Girl – Bob Merrill/ Jule Styne)
Sanges is an effective storyteller. We’re regaled with the evolution of Funny Girl up to the moment Fanny’s son-in-law Ray Stark serendipitously walked into the Bon Soir and saw Streisand. A wide-eyed, grateful “How Lucky Can You Get” (Funny Lady – John Kander/Fred Ebb) follows. Two songs with romantic connotation are then engagingly sung to an Academy Award statue. The performer is beguiling. Sequence is deft. Emotion arrives persuasive.
A nod to Sanges’ “own” gadabout crush at the time leads us to Fanny’s love, professional gambler, Julius Wilford “Nicky” Arnstein. The charming con man served 14 months in prison before they married (she visited every day), then after six years together, was incarcerated three years for bond theft. (Fanny paid all legal expenses.) When released, he disappeared. She reluctantly got a divorce.
“Oh How I Hate That Fella Nathan…for making me love him” (1922 Lew Brown/Albert Von Tilzer) emerges Fanny style replete with well acted monologue. Sanges confides in the audience who sentimentally respond despite drollery.
In 1928, Fanny met impresario/showman/lyricist Billy Rose – Samuel William Rosenberg – who became her next husband until his very public affair with an Olympic swimmer forced her exit. During “More Than You Know” (1929 Billy Rose/Edward Eliscu/Vincent Youmans) the vocalist looks in, while “The Music That Makes Me Dance” (Funny Girl – Bob Merrill/Jule Styne) unaffectedly appeals to the audience for understanding.I believe every word.
A snippet of Fanny’s most popular radio personality, Baby Snooks, is pitch perfect. It’s as if we see the petulant child pondering the pros and cons of MD John Cook’s efforts to get her off the stage. Alas “Secondhand Rose” (Grant Clarke/James F. Hanley) evinces not a bit of the Yiddish accent that would enhance and authenticate.
“I never liked the men I loved or loved the men I liked,” Fanny said. Billy Rose/ Fred Fisher’s “I’d Rather Be Blue Over You” is flirty and hopeful. We close with a low gloss, accessible version of “People” (Funny Girl – Bob Merrill/Jule Styne) and Fanny’s signature “My Man” (Channing Pollack/Maurice Yvain). The latter begins low key, conversational, almost a capella, then gradually swells evoking chills. This is not achieved by audience admiration for holding a loud note, but rather affecting investment. Though her voice could absolutely do so, Sanges never gratuitously shows off.
The show is excellent. Research provides just enough information. Josephine Sanges’ Fanny is irresistible.
MD/Pianist John M. Cook contributes the original song “Touching Magic” which though quite good has no place here. Pointilist accompaniment emphasizes vocals, but for the most part neither adds color nor supports.
Kudos to Director Jeff Harnar who has both brought out Sanges’ theatrical brio and delivered material associated with Streisand by mining the songs, not familiar context. A splendid collaboration.
Photos by Stephen Mosher
The Funny Girl in Me – Josephine Sanges Sings Fanny Brice
John M. Cook MD/Piano
Jeff Harnar- Director
The Laurie Beechman Theatre
407 West 42nd Street