By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
When Barbra Streisand tackled the challenge of playing Fanny Brice in Funny Girl in 1964, she had been seen on the Broadway stage only once previously. Her role as Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale had garnered attention for her stage persona, but Funny Girl made her a legitimate star.
Locally, we have also seen Caleigh Alessi but once before in the Jefferson Performing Arts Society’s second production of The Light in the Piazza as Franca Naccarelli prior to her tackling the role of the singing sensation of the Vaudeville stage. And with this one production we have established another star.
While there is no doubt that the yiddishkeit in her performance could use a slight plumping up by a director with a more Jewish hand, Butch Caire does a superb job in shaping Alessi’s performance and that of her co-star Robert Facio. Facio, who plays a dark and dashing Nick Arnstein, is a solid choice in his casting. Other than sporting a bit more Yiddish expression in her acting and singing while portraying Brice, Alessi brings a deliberate and surprisingly accomplished manner to this staging.
Alessi’s brassy voice ends both acts with the literal show-stopper “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” but in between she playfully interprets “I’m the Greatest Star,” and songs intended to emulate Brice’s shtick like “Sadie, Sadie” and “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat.” She carresses her duet with Facio in “You Are Woman” and glides through her choreography in numbers like “I Want to Be Seen With You Tonight.”
Brice’s foremost quest to be a star showcasing her innate comedic skills drives the early portion of the original book penned by Isobel Lennart and largely revamped by the composer and lyricist team of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. “I’m the Greatest Star” and “Cornet Man” showcase Alessi’s talented ability to take charge of a piece, even while a dozen other dancers and singers are hoofing and singing their hearts out.
That’s probably the reason Funny Girl is so rarely performed on stage. It’s extremely hard to find a headliner like Alessi who can hold the audience’s attention and who can expertly navigate through the demands of acting and difficult singing roles. Alessi makes it seem easy, but not effortless.
Fresh off his recent starring role in West Side Story, John Michael Haas portrays the Ziegfeld Tenor to great effect in “His Love Makes Me Beautiful.”
Tracey Collins also does a great job playing Fannie’s mother, Mrs. Brice, as does Kirk Gagnon, who portrays Brice’s friend and would-be suitor Eddie Ryan. He also contributes to the war ditty “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” prior to the star’s arrival.
Lori Flanders handles the choreography with skill and the large ensemble of mostly younger players pick up her direction very well.
Roger Magendie plays Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. with authority, while other noted players in smaller roles include Helen Blanke, Claire Conti and Jimmy Demontluzin.
Maestro Dennis Assaf again handles his job as conductor with great competence, assisted by Donna Clavijo, who serves as musical director.
Funny Girl plays the final weekend of performances at the Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 6400 Airline Drive in Metairie, with shows on Friday and Saturday, November 11-12 at 8:00 p.m. and the final Sunday matinee on November 13 at 2:00 p.m.. For more information call 504-885-2000 or click here for ticket information.
(Editor’s note: This article was revised to reflect that an addition to the original manuscript has now been removed by JPAS at the insistence of the licensing agent acting on behalf of the owner of the work’s copyright.)