When lyricist and composer Stephen Sondheim was invited to work on a musical recounting the life of Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice, he refused because Mary Martin (who played Peter Pan on Broadway) was being considered for the lead. Sondheim told composer Jule Styne that the actress chosen had to be "ethnic." And when Carol Burnett was offered the role, she turned it down, telling Brice's son-in-law, producer Ray Stark: "I'd love to do it, but what you need is a Jewish girl."
Barbra Streisand's career was launched with Funny Girl, the 1963 Broadway musical. She was performing in Greenwich Village, making her debut in I Can Get It For You Wholesale, a play set in New York's garment district. Stark approached her about playing the role of a Jewish girl from humble beginnings who rose to becoming the highest paid American comedienne of her time.
The Jefferson Performing Arts Society's (JPAS) production stars the talented Caleigh Alessi, but it misses the essence of New York's immigrant culture. The hardscrabble residents of Henry Street are dressed in straw hats and pastels as if attending a garden party.
Brice, born Fania Borach, the daughter of immigrants who owned a Lower East Side saloon at the turn of the century, was boisterous and, at times, uncouth. She made her mark in burlesque being outrageous.
"I got 36 expressions, sweet as pie to tough as leather, and that's 36 expressions more than all those Barrymores put together," Brice sings. It would be enormously unfair to compare almost any female vocalist to Streisand, but Alessi plays far too much to the audience, never fully unleashing her emotions to perform the show's fantastic repertoire.
What does work is the supporting cast, which provides the flavor of the Lower East Side. Tracey Collins (Mrs. Rose Borach), steals the show as Mama, having mastered a New York accent and the appropriate mannerisms. Joining her for an afternoon poker game are Jan Zeiger (Mrs. Strakosh), Claire Conti (Mrs. O'Malley) and Helen Blanke (Mrs. Meeker), who trade small bets and gossip. The yentas foist blunt advice on Fanny to marry, chanting, "When a girl's incidentals are no bigger than two lentils, then to me that doesn't spell success."
Jimmy deMontluzin (Tom Keeney), who runs the Brooklyn talent show where Fanny gets her start, and Roger Magendie (Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.), founder of the Zeigfield Follies, are tough businessmen who recognize raw talent. Robert Facio (Nick Arnstein), Fanny's lover and husband, is appropriately dashing and dangerous. Also excellent is Kirk Gagnon (Eddie Ryan), a song-and-dance man faithful to the period. John Michael Haas' fabulous tenor voice introduces the Follies girls.
In West Side Story last month, JPAS captured the feel of New York City's 1950s immigrant culture. It is a shame it does not come closer to pinpointing 1910.