For more than half a century, theater companies have shied away from producing Funny Girl, the biographical musical of Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, in part because whoever plays the leading role would be subjected to comparisons with Ms. Streisand.
Apparently Boca Raton’s Wick Theatre was unfazed by that hurdle and, boy, have they found an actress-singer-clown to fill those giant shoes. Chances are you have never heard of Stephanie Maloney before, and who knows where her career will take her, but she is currently giving a star-quality performance as lucky-onstage, unlucky-in-her-personal-life Brice, without giving any indication of how difficult the task is.
The production has much to recommend it, thanks to well-paced direction by Dom Ruggiero, capable support by George Dvorsky as vain gambler and clotheshorse Nick Arnstein, a hard-working ensemble and, of course, a first-rate score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. But simply put, the show succeeds or fails on the skills of the actress playing Fanny and, by that measure, the Wick has a solid winner.
Only a star vehicle with confidence in its leading lady would begin by writing her a number called “I’m the Greatest Star.” In Funny Girl, it allows the actress playing Fanny to show off her singing pipes, comedy proficiency and chutzpah. Maloney delivers the song with such take-no-prisoners bravado that we accept its premise and quickly relax about the fate of the production.
With each piece of comedy material – “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” “Sadie, Sadie” and “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” – our admiration of Maloney increases. But it is on the ballads – “People,” “Who Are You Now?” and “The Music That Makes Me Dance” – that she wins our hearts. Her phrasing choices are not all that different from Streisand’s, but they deviate enough that we sense she is avoiding imitation.
The script by Isobel Lennart is a mere outline of Brice’s life, and a lot more effective on her way up the show business ladder than in the second act, when her marriage to Arnstein begins to crumble. Early on, this awkward, plain woman (“a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls”) elbows her way to a featured spot in a local vaudeville theater, then gets invited to audition for Florenz Ziegfeld, winning a spot in his latest Follies and showing that she will be a challenging employee.
Meanwhile, she has attracted the attention of Arnstein, who comes to resent her celebrity and her greater financial success. Desperate for a big score in his shady investments, he crosses the line into embezzlement and lands in prison, further damaging his marriage to Fanny.
Like Arnstein does to Brice, Dvorsky plays a distant second fiddle to Maloney, though he succeeds at making the character likeable and sings quite capably. As Fanny’s neighborhood booster Eddie Ryan, the always welcome Courter Simmons (Singin’ in the Rain, Drowsy Chaperone) is a lively presence. He is well paired with Angie Radosh as Fanny’s mother, even if their second act duet has been deleted.
Josieu T. Jean’s backdrop projections evoke early 20th-century New York, allowing the set design to get by with fragments of scenery. No, there’s no tugboat for Fanny’s defiant exit on “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” but Jean’s suggestion of a moving train receding into a Baltimore tunnel is a visually effective finale to the first act. Jim Buff raided the Wick’s clothes racks for some attractive vintage costumes, particularly the onstage duds and Fanny’s finale trick transformation gown.
If there is a nit that needs to be picked, it is the Wick’s cost-cutting decision to slide back into the use of recorded accompaniment. Although it mars the production, nothing could rain on the triumph of Stephanie Maloney. Here’s hoping the Wick gets busy looking for more shows for her to do here.
FUNNY GIRL, The Wick Theatre, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, Feb. 24. $95-$75. (561) 995-2333 or visit thewick.org.