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Lea Michele in Funny Girl: Yes, she is that good

There are 3 things you need to be a great Fanny Brice. Lea Michele has 2 of them.

Lea Michele as Fanny Brice on stage.
Lea Michele as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.
Matthew Murphy, 2022.

The atmosphere at Broadway’s Funny Girl revival right now is not so much electric as it is delightedly salacious, the audience salivating for sweet, sweet gossip. After all the Funny Girl drama this summer — the rapid ousting of sweet Beanie Feldstein as Fanny Brice, the musical’s lead, and her replacement with reputed bully Lea Michele — everyone in that theater has put up their cold, hard cash to find out: Was it worth it? All the scandal, the bad optics? Could Lea Michele possibly be that good?

She’s not exactly Streisand. But she comes pretty damn close.

Funny Girl is a bizarre show, a hackneyed hagiography to a vaudeville star whose Isobel Lennart-penned book is the midcentury equivalent to Glitter’s screenplay. Despite its cliché-ridden plot about a poor girl who becomes a star, only to risk her stardom for her marriage to a man who wasn’t worthy of her, Funny Girl became immortal when it debuted on Broadway in 1964. Mostly, that was thanks to the twin pillars of its glorious Jule Styne songs and Barbra Streisand’s iconic performance in the lead role. (Bob Merrill provides the just-okay lyrics.) Every production since then has had to live in the shadow of their legacy.

Streisand proved that Funny Girl can be great, if you make the songs work and if you have a terrific Fanny Brice: someone who’s funny, who has a voice big enough to nail Styne and Merrill’s octave-spanning ballads, and who can make the audience believe unquestioningly in her theatrical genius and will to power. Lea Michele nails two out of those three qualifications, and that ain’t bad at all.

Michele proved she had the vocal chops to pull off a convincing Streisand dupe way back in her Glee days, where she covered a series of Funny Girl songs in performances that tended to ape Streisand’s distinctive phrasing and pronunciations. (“The sun’s a ball of buttah,” anyone?) Now, at 36, she still has the pure, supple tone that made her a TV star, but she’s acquired the gravitas and confidence it takes to move past mimicry. She can interpret stone-cold classics like “People” and “I’m the Greatest Star” with a technique that nods to Streisand without copying her beat for beat, and her belt on “Don’t Rain on My Parade” fills the theater.

Is this funny girl funny? Not exactly, but she makes the jokes charming. Michele approaches Fanny’s one-liners and extended physical comedy bits with a hint of despair that suggests she finds their self-deprecation humiliating. Regardless, she throws all her Rachel Berry A-student determination at her jokes (watch her try desperately to keep a fake mustache glued to her face while patter-singing in an old-timey Yiddish accent). The combination ends up feeling endearing: Look, she’s suffering for us.

That determination, in the end, is what makes Michele’s Fanny Brice so compelling. Funny Girl is the story of Fanny’s will to succeed, her determination that she won’t be held back by her skinny legs, the men who can’t see past them, or her unworthy husband. It is the tale of ambition triumphing over all. That’s a quality Michele has always had in spades — and now, after the scandal in 2020 that saw her losing endorsement deals over her reported history of bullying on set, her ambition has been sharpened with a fine edge of desperation. She’s acting up on that stage like her career depends on it, which it probably does.

The production surrounding Michele by and large doesn’t rise to her level. There are exceptions: Jared Grimes, who was nominated for a Tony for the supporting role of dance teacher Eddie, continues to bring a welcome shot of joy to the show with his exuberant tap solos. And Tovah Feldshuh, taking over for Jane Lynch as Fanny’s mother Mrs. Brice, gives an earthy and grounded performance that shows you exactly where Fanny came from.

But even with the book reworked by Harvey Fierstein, the show still falls apart in Act 2, when the focus moves from Fanny to her sleazy gambler husband, Nick. Fierstein’s revisions attempt to flesh Nick out, but only succeed in giving him more unnecessary stage time, all of which feels wasted until we get back into Fanny’s perspective. (Ramin Karimloo, it must be said, gives a charming and creamy-voiced leading-man performance in the role; it is not his fault Nick is written so badly.)

Michael Mayer’s direction tends to the flat and predictable, with confetti guns and proscenium lighting changes thudding emotional cues out at the audience with all the subtlety of a freight train. David Zinn’s scenic design, meanwhile, is if anything too subtle: A giant and powerfully ugly brick silo looms inexplicably in the center of the set, whether it’s representing Brooklyn or a luxury hotel or a theater. It’s less enigma than annoyance.

Still, if Funny Girl’s legacy proves anything, it’s that this show can withstand a lot — a clichéd story, clunky lyrics, and a questionable set too, why not — as long as it keeps delivering the big moments.

For Funny Girl to succeed, what it really needs is to land the panicked, nervous exuberance of the long buildup of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” (“Don’t tell me not to live, I’ve simply got to!”), the anxious delight of someone willfully ignoring the good advice of her friends and family to throw her arms around a bad decision that may well ruin her life, simply because she can’t bear not to do it.

Right now, with Lea Michele at the helm, Funny Girl is landing the big moments. And every time it does, the ravenous, voracious audience rises up out of their seats to applaud, and the gossip starts mattering a little bit less.