REVIEW: Such a sad story about such a ‘Funny Girl’ at the Vintage in Aurora

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AURORA | After more than a generation of sound sleep, regional theaters across the country are bringing the musical story of American comedy icon Fanny Brice back to life. And the life of one of the country’s most endearing, albeit not enduring, comediennes is filling up almost all the boards of Aurora’s Vintage Theatre.

Cora Marsh as Fanny Brice in the Vintage Theatre production of "Funny Girl" in Aurora. Courtesy photoFew people these days know much about Brice, although almost everyone alive in the 1960s can sing practically every word of at least two of the classic songs from the musical about Brice’s amazing life. “People” (who need people) and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” are foundations of the American musical lexicon. Far fewer recall or ever heard of Baby Snooks, a radio comedy show once as prominent as “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and faded for most of America, just about as fast. For most of us, the now-obscure play is all about Barbara Streisand as Brice in the movie version of “Funny Girl.” And that’s how the Vintage “Funny Girl” comes off.

Brice was an unlikely Ziegfield Follies girl from pre-World War I New York. While Flo Ziegfield’s famous shows were all about glitz and glamour, Brice was a plucky Brooklyn wannabe stage star with some success in vaudeville. A plain girl, she rocketed to fame by playing comedy against her homeliness. She turned an insecurity into a raging comedic talent, eventually moving into film and radio.

And that’s pretty much Brice’s story and the foundation of the play. Vintage director Robert Michael Sanders channels the role that Streisand invented and has forever owned, staking her own career on it.

Sanders and the show’s Fanny Brice, Lauren Cora Marsh, focus hard on the dissonance in Fanny’s longing for love and longing to be lovable. Both elude Marsh’s Fanny.

This is a story about a woman whose jaw unclenches only when she sings or talks at length. She purses her lips and clenches her fists and fights against her own demons of insecurity rather than the ones she thinks are holding her back. Missing from Fanny at the Vintage was Brice’s mirth and intuitive humor. Brice was the master of making light of her darkness. Here, the darkness is just under the skin, a skin Fanny seems most uncomfortable in. Fanny isn’t very funny. She’s a tortured woman who knows she picked a loser for a trophy husband even while she has a winning acting career. The self deprecation comes off as terse. The audience wants to laugh, but it’s clear that Fanny doesn’t think it’s funny, setting this show apart from the two epic incarnations of the 1960s.

Neither Marsh nor the show, however, are gloomy. Marsh is astounding as the foot-stomping, exasperating Fanny Brice, and she flawlessly runs through the show’s prolific and challenging songs like it was she and not Streisand who invented and perfected the role. Itching to hear and see “Parade” and “People” onstage? You won’t be disappointed. Marsh rocks it.

The whole cast and crew create a spirited show that’s as big as the audacious Zigfield Follies. It’s all on a modest stage that didn’t seem cramped at all when Marsh plays up Brice’s epic, pregnant bride dance-and-song routine, which according to legend, essentially launched her as national sensation.

The show kaleidoscopes with ease through vaudeville numbers, massive follies, drunken bar bashes, mansion drama, backstage and even the alleys of Brooklyn.

While Marsh shines bright as Fanny, and the show really is all about her, she’s able to play the tightrope because the rest of the cast is so masterful in their supporting parts. Nearly 20 actors roll effortlessly through wide-ranging songs and dance numbers to set the early 1900s stage as the flamboyant era was in New York. Suzanne Connors Nepi practically auditions for a “Funny Girl” sequel as Fanny’s mother, “Mama” Brice. Virtually panting with the energy of old Carol Burnett skits, Nepi’s levity is a vital foil to Fanny’s furrowed brow. Denver-theater staple Keeghan Flaugh is the trusted, untrustworthy Nick Arnstein, the obsession of Fanny and nearly her downfall. He pulls off a part that could have either been a Jewish Ricky Ricardo or an American Henry Higgins. He’s neither as someone pitiful instead of pathetic. Down the line, the cast delivers one solid character and number after the other.

Sanders and scene designer Douglas Clarke create an amazingly un-hampered set, and they invent a way to bring the Follies on stage that seem equally unlimited.

The show oozes appeal for those who will always stand still to see clips from the historic movie, or the next generation curious about where songs as famous as these originally came from. This funny girl isn’t so riotous, but she’s totally mesmerizing.

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“Funny Girl”

Fridays and Saturdays t 7:30 p.m.; Sundays. at 2:30 p.m; Thursday Dec. 31 and Jan. 14 at 7:30 p.m; Saturday Jan. 16 t 2:30 p.m. Through Jan. 17. No performance on Dec. 25.

Tickets: $28-$32 at 303-856-7830 or online at vintagetheatre.org.

Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton St., Aurora