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Theatre review: How ‘Funny Girl’ is like ‘Barbie’ and why it matters

The 2022 Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” – its touring production continuing at Segerstrom Center for the Arts through June 9 – has uncanny parallels to Greta Gerwig’s 2023 film “Barbie.”

 

Both stories resurrect iconic female characters – one based on Fanny Brice, a real-life star of New York’s Ziegfeld Follies from the 1910s to the ‘30s, while the other brings to life a 1950s doll still marketed to girls today.

Fanny Brice, 1918 Ziegfeld Follies publicity photograph (by Alfred Cheney Johnston, Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Both characters are spirited, multi-talented, and have a “Ken” they could learn to respect better. And each man – Ken (Ryan Gosling) in “Barbie” and Nick (Stephen Mark Lukas) in “Funny Girl” – gets his own song and earns audience sympathy while each woman learns a life lesson.

 

But by the end, each woman also owns what is her birthright – shining on her own terms.

 

Though Fanny’s story might be considered dated at 100 years old, her self-confidence, quick wit and sheer chutzpah – which come across as thickly as her Brooklyn accent in this production – are qualities rarely celebrated in women even now.

 

That’s part of the appeal of “Barbie” as well. Though bathed in pink and embodying the “stereotypical” (jobless) version of the doll, Barbie is confident in herself and the abilities of her many avatar Barbies, be they doctors, construction workers, scientists or journalists.

Promotional poster for Greta Gerwig's 2023 film "Barbie" (Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures)

There are differences, of course, namely that Fanny (played in the touring production by an astonishingly voiced Katerina McCrimmon) is Jewish, brunette and not the classic “American beauty,” as per one of the show’s songs, that the tall, slender, blonde Barbie (Margot Robbie in the film) came to embody.

 

Instead of blending in with the stage’s long-limbed chorus girls, Fanny embraces her comic sensibility, assuredly answering her mother’s cautionary song “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” (“like a Miss Atlantic City”) by belting “I’m the Greatest Star.”

 

Fanny’s self-belief may have actually stemmed from her mother Rose (played by a vital Melissa Manchester), who once ran a saloon and seems to have fostered rather than quashed Fanny’s innate quick wit and timing.


Unlike Barbie, who is inherently perfect in her world, Fanny is not afraid to stick out like a sore (but funny) thumb by not dancing in time with the other Follies girls, or comically emphasizing her pronounced belly as an extremely pregnant bride in the Follies number “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.”

From left: Izaiah Montaque Harris (Eddie Ryan) and Katerina McCrimmon (Fanny Brice) in the national tour of "Funny Girl" (Photo courtesy SCFTA)

Though unconventional (or perhaps because of that), Fanny attracts the attention of handsome investor and gambler Nick Arnstein (Lukas). “You Are Woman, I Am Man” captures the essence of their somewhat unlikely relationship, highlighted in a wonderful scene in a swank hotel room where Nick woos the hesitant (and hungry) Fanny with champagne and room service – ordering roast beef and potatoes in French, which she doesn’t get – and a comfortable couch, which she does understand.

 

Barbie’s Ken is similarly besotted with her, though she doesn’t see it, seeming to take him for granted while prioritizing her gal pals, having fun sleepovers with them every night rather than hanging out with him.

 

(Mis)treated and overlooked in a way women traditionally have been, Ken and his buddies soon take over Barbie’s world, swinging the sexual power balance the other way.

 

Similar to how Barbie treats Ken, Fanny seems to inadvertently undermine Nick’s manhood, and not just through her stardom. She insists Nick attend her first opening night following the birth of their child rather than travel to seek investors for a casino. She writes the check instead, and when disaster wipes out the building, secretly invests in another business to give Nick something else to do.

 

The song “Temporary Arrangement” (“a temporary arrangement is the only permanent thing”) is Nick’s version of Ken’s “I’m Just Ken” (“doesn't seem to matter what I do, I'm always number two”) cry for help, both sung solo with men friends.

 

Eventually, after much hardship, Fanny and Barbie realize the error of their well-intentioned ways and are willing to compromise. But is it too late? Is it Kenough?


In Fanny’s case, it may not be. But to her credit, though heartbroken, she reminds us that she owns her place in the world, living her fullest life on its stage. As she sings in “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” “don't tell me not to live . . . don’t tell me not to fly” — a bittersweet anthem.

Katerina McCrimmon (Fanny Brice) in the national tour of "Funny Girl" (Photo by Evan Zimmerman)

While Barbie ventures out of the now slightly more equal Barbie Land at the end as a “real” woman without Ken (and gets a gynecological exam for the first time), Fanny roars in the finale that she is already that and always has been, Ken or no Ken.

 

“Funny Girl” is a different narrative than one might expect, based on a woman who shone brightly in a different time. Such stories can cut through the messages handed down to us about the roles of women and men, and the images of "beauty" streaming on our media.

 

And with this story, we get Izaiah Montaque Harris’s enthralling tap dancing as Eddie (tap choreography by Ayodele Casel), Jule Styne’s transporting original music (orchestra vivaciously conducted here by Elaine Davidson), Ellenore Scott’s lively choreography and Susan Hilferty’s vivid period costuming.

 

While the production could have probably done without the garish WWI military Follies number “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat,” especially given the current global conflicts, perhaps Fanny would agree that the show must go on, and Barbie might have enjoyed a mustachioed Fanny as the defeated Kaiser. After all, there may be some men we could all do without.

 

“Funny Girl” continues at Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, through June 9. Tickets start at $39 for performances Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at SCFTA.org or by calling the box office at (714) 556-2787. Run time is 2 hours and 50 minutes, including intermission.

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