Funny Girl

Paper Mill Playhouse, NJ - April 2001

Review by John Kenrick

Leslie Kritzer in Funny Girl at Paper MillA tornado passed through central New Jersey last week, but no one who was on hand ran for cover or had any complaints. In fact, we all stood and cheered till we were hoarse, for this was a musical comedy tornado, and her name is Leslie Kritzer.

The Paper Mill Playhouse team said they had found an exciting new talent to star in their long awaited revival of Funny Girl, and they were not exaggerating. Kritzer is no imitation of Stresiand, but every inch an original. She's a powerhouse singer who can wring the heart out of "People," and then sustain clarion notes in showstoppers like "Don't Rain on My Parade" until you wonder how so much sound can come out of such a petite package! In between, she fills "You Are Woman" with flawless physical shtick, and does things with a pillow and bridal gown in "His Love Makes Me Beautiful" that even Streisand never thought of. Would that Broadway had waited until this lady came along to revive "Once Upon a Mattress" – here at last is someone worthy of Carol Burnett's comic legacy.

Kritzer has such assurance that its surprising this young New Jersey native has few previous credits. (Her only NY stint was in the off-Broadway revival of Godspell.) I'll bet you this much – she will have major credits in years to come, and those of us lucky enough to catch her in this Funny Girl will brag that we were there for that rarest of events – the birth of a genuine star.

Leslie Kritzer and Robert Cuccioli sing "You Are Woman"The last time I had this feeling, I was at the old Light Opera of Manhattan seeing a dashing young baritone make his professional debut in The Merry Widow. The minute you saw him, you just knew this office worker would be a star – and his name was Robert Cuccioli. As Paper Mill's Nick Arnstein, Cuccioli is sexier and more dramatically potent than ever, scoring star points in a role that rarely works so well. By making us feel for Nick, he makes Fanny's tragedy all the more touching. And he adds the kind of vocal fireworks no one else has ever attempted in the part. And did I mention he's sexier than ever? (Yes, I guess I did.) This time, it was easy to understand Fanny's infatuation!

Funny Girl is so loosely based on the story of Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice and her ill-fated romance with embezzler Nick Arnstein that it is practically a fantasy. The original producer was Fanny's real-life son-in-law, who had to appease both his wife and the still-living Arnstein. So its actually surprising that screenwriter Isobel Leonnart came up with such an entertaining script. Yes, I know countless others contributed to the final version, including several different writers and directors, but –despite some rocky transitions in the second act – it works. The Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score is a parade of great tunes, from the thrilling overture to the underrated "The Music That Makes Me Dance." If you love the cast album, you'll have a ball hearing this score performed live, with a full sized Broadway orchestra – something you won't find at Broadway's revival of Follies for almost twice the price!

Bob Dorian is an elegant Flo Ziegfeld, and longtime Paper Mill favorite Robert Creighton is delightful as Eddie Ryan, the energetic hoofer who doesn't get the girl. Diane J. Findlay doesn't quite hit the right sardonic note as Mrs. Brice, and Marie Lillo missed many of the comic possibilities as the nosy Mrs. Strakosh. But the rest of the ensemble is right on target.

Leslie Kritzer as Fanny BriceDavid Murin's period costumes are picture perfect, and his Ziegfeld showgirls are a triumph of visual creativity worthy of Erte. Michael Anania's gorgeous sets were all delights, including the outrageous Follies production numbers. And Mark Stanley lit everything with a sure hand. I couldn't help thinking what these three could have done to improve that other Follies across the Hudson. Michael Lichtefeld's choreography is better than anything I've seen on Broadway this season, and director Robert Johanson can be proud of staging one of the best productions Paper Mill has seen in years. That's not just my opinion – the audience buzz at intermission was one of total delight, and I overheard more than one conversation that included, "We've got to renew our subscription for next season."

As it stands, if you haven't been to Paper Mill this is the time to get out to Jersey and find out what all the fuss is about. In case you didn't notice, almost every critic who panned the lamentable Broadway revival of Follies mentioned that Paper Mill did the same show far better two seasons ago. This season, the company has turned out a solid series of superb productions, and has uncovered the most exciting young performer I've seen in years. Paper Mill is no fluke – its a musical lover's dream come true.

That tornado I mentioned at the start is leaving audiences dizzy only through May 20th. Till then, Paper Mill, Leslie Kritzer and Funny Girl are waiting – so get on out to Millburn and get swept up by the lot of 'em!

Link to: The Paper MillPlayhouse Website

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