The Greatest Star? Early Critics Gaga Over Lea Michele's 'Funny Girl'

Friday September 30, 2022

Lea Michele as Fanny Brice and Ramin Karimloo as Nick Arnstein in "Funny Girl." (Matthew Murphy)
Lea Michele as Fanny Brice and Ramin Karimloo as Nick Arnstein in "Funny Girl." (Matthew Murphy)  

As of Friday afternoon, a handful of critics have weighed in on Lea Michele performance in the problem-plagued "Funny Girl" revival, and they are raves.

Michele replaced Beanie Feldstein at the beginning of September. Feldstein decided to leave the production prematurely after it was announced that Michele was to replace her in July.

In early September her first performances were greeted with standing ovations, but then Michele contracted Covid and was out of the show for two additional weeks. Because of the delays, the producers have decided not to invite the critics until sometime in October, but a number of productions jumped the gun and bought tickets for the show earlier this week to see how Michele was acclimating to the role.

Jesse Greene in the New York Times, points out that without a great Fanny Brice, "Funny Girl" can be tough going, even with Feldstein, whom he thought was good. And the production has found that great Fanny with Michele.

"Lea Michele, who took over the role on Sept. 6, turns out to be that stupendous Fanny. Yes, she even lights up like a light. Both vulnerable and invulnerable, kooky and ardent, she makes the show worth watching again."

Adding that "She can't make it good, though. Michael Mayer's production is still garish and pushy, pandering for audience overreaction...

"But at least "Funny Girl" now has a missile: a performer who from her first words ('Hello, Gorgeous') shoots straight to her target and hits it...

"Her voice, an exceptional instrument, is not an ornament but a tool, and she knows how to use it. That in itself is no surprise; she seems to have been trying out for the role since 2009. Over the course of her six seasons as Rachel Berry on "Glee," she sang most of Fanny's numbers with exceedingly high polish, if sometimes a powerful whiff of Streisand karaoke. (Rachel's middle name was Barbra.)

"That Michele makes 'Funny Girl' seem better than we know it to be is the wonderful but possibly irreproducible product of the mutual need between an old-fashioned talent on the way up and an old-fashioned musical on the way down. It's a need like that of lovers, and you know what the song says about them: Despite all evidence, they're the luckiest people in the world."

Johnny Oleksinski at the New York Post gives the story some background.

"Michele arrives confidently and in splendid voice amid an onslaught of dishy stories about the early departure of her predecessor, Beanie Feldstein," he writes. "Indeed, no Broadway switcheroo has been this dramatic since Andrew Lloyd Webber unceremoniously booted Patti LuPone out of 'Sunset Boulevard' and hired Glenn Close instead."

The Post bought the best available seat this past Tuesday (Rear Mezz, Row Q), and concluded "Michele is ready to go. She's revved up and performs like she's been belting 'Don't Rain On My Parade' in the shower every day for 10 years. Hell, she probably has! Together with the titanic Feldshuh, the 'Glee' star lifts this wanting production into something much more palatable than it was back in the spring. (Many of the existing issues remain, however.) This time, I actually enjoyed it."

Oleksinski continued: "Michele brings real singing power to the table as Fanny — the role made famous by Barbra Streisand — which was sorely lacking in the revival and is beyond vital. If you know the show, you're aware you don't come for the gripping scenes. It's all about the songs. 'Don't Rain On My Parade,' 'People' and 'I'm The Greatest Star; now all sound buttery, strong and satisfying."

He went on to praise co-star Tovah Feldshuh, who replaced Jane Lynch, as Fanny's mother.

"The funniest girl at the August Wilson Theatre isn't the title character, but the great Feldshuh. In a role that's harder to make stand out than a beige accent wall, the veteran actress has the crowd in stitches with almost every line," he writes.

But, he concludes: "Strong casting can only help so much, however. A lot of pressure has been put on Michele (and Feldstein, for that matter) to carry an inherently flawed musical that has never really worked. Act 1, boasting iconic songs by Styne and lyricist Merrill, a 'Star Is Born' plot and a lot of sexy romance grabs you here more than ever. But, as revised by Harvey Fierstein, Act 2 remains a sluggish wannabe 'Gypsy' about the perils of fame. As her gambling addict husband loses money, we lose interest. There's nothing Michele and Feldshuh can do about that. Director Michael Mayer's staging is still an eyesore."

The Washington Post's Peter Marks shares in the enthusiasm: "When Lea Michele launches missile-like into 'Don't Rain on My Parade,' she doesn't just bring down the house. She brings down the whole darn block," he begins his review.

"It's the performance in this 1964 backstage musical that an imbiber of golden-era Broadway wants — no, needs — to drink in. An irresistible cocktail mixed with fizz, rocket fuel and pure talent," he says.

"Face it, though: This is the Lea Michele Show, and her presence has the effect of setting the playhouse in order. 'I'm the Greatest Star,' with its pulse-quickening affirmation of a young woman of enormous appetites and gifts, is delivered now with the full-throated confidence that leads easily to the conclusion that, yup, this is a star. Equally potent are Fanny's torchy 'The Music That Makes Me Dance,' and a finale in which Fanny pulls herself out of an emotional cellar, proof of the preternatural resilience that defines a mortal who thrives in the limelight.

"The overeager audience starts cheering before Michele can get out even the first notes of her songs, and that's a shame. Because it's thrilling to hear her scale each of these signature challenges from start to finish. When she's out there onstage, framed in azure light and singing with deep passion and total commitment, she really is a rhapsody in blue."