Hey Melbourne – here Caroline O’Connor is. She may just be The Greatest Star.
Funny Girl tells the story of Fanny Brice, a legend of the American stage. Audiences follow her struggle with conformity, her love-life and her journey to success through Florenz Ziegfeld and Follies. It opened on Broadway in 1964 and starred Barbra Streisand, with Fanny Brice’s own son-in-law producing the show, and book by Isobel Lennart, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Bob Merrill.
Caroline O’Connor is the real deal. A true star. What a privilege it is to watch her in her element. Returning to the role after 17 years, both with The Production Company, O’Connor is hilarious, she’s emotive and she sucks you in to her world of Fanny Brice. O’Connor’s commanding stage presence and remarkable range of vocal tones never falter.
O’Connor delivers the well-known “Don’t Rain On My Parade” in such juxtaposing ways to finish each act, that it doesn’t feel like the same song. Forever the uplifting, independence anthem of theatre, a highlight of Funny Girl is to see this iconic song through O’Connor’s Brice. Caroline O’Connor is moving, inspiring and oh-so hilarious as Fanny Brice.
Nancye Hayes is a delight as Mrs Brice, Fanny’s mother. She is a humbling, unpretentious character, and watching O’Connor and Hayes together is a complete joy. David Hobson tackles Nick Arnstein with all the deftness of an experienced performer, creating a charming yet insecure Arnstein. Luke Alleva as Eddie Ryan is a standout in this cast as a lovable, friend zoned dancing talent. Alleva is particularly impressive during “Who Taught Her Everything?” with Nancye Hayes.
The fantastic principle cast is completed with Susan-Ann Walker (Mrs Strakosh), David Ross Paterson (Florenz Ziegfeld), Greg Stone (Tom Keeney), Judith Roberts (Mrs O’Malley) and Jan Russ (Emma). There is extensive experience and talent here, creating a comic and heart-warming cast.
The cast is rounded out by a stellar ensemble. They rise to each challenge, have high energy and are splendid to watch together. Of particular note, it was exciting to see Daniel Assetta given the chance to shine and showcase a richer voice than what Cats offered him as Rum Tum Tugger, sharing the lead in “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” with Blake Appelqvist as Ziegfeld Tenors. Under Gale Edwards’ experienced directorial watch, Funny Girl is a genuine success.
Kelly Abbey’s choreography is charismatic and adds an extraordinary dynamism to the stage, left without too much of an imposing set. The choreography adds to the setting of the era with sharp, exciting and memorable movement. It’s easy to see why Abbey has received prestigious awards and many high-profile credits.
Trudy Dalgleish’s lighting is stunning, creating a beautiful atmosphere and blending in or standing out as necessary. The costumes are sensational and with Tim Chappel and Owen Phillips on board, it’s to be expected. They’re flashy and stylish but completely era-relevant. The creative team’s collaboration has clearly been strong with how well all the elements of this show work together.
Shaun Gurton’s sets work exceptionally well in the space available. With the orchestra taking up a significant portion of the stage, it cleverly uses an elevated stage behind the orchestra with staircases on either side. The set is dressed often by relying on the fly tower, however, there are still various set pieces and props used as needed. It works well – it allows for the imagination to take hold partially, but gives the audience enough of an idea of what’s going on to ensure this isn’t purely concert-style.
Funny Girl brings an exciting addition to The Production Company in The Production Company Orchestra. The wonderful orchestra made Funny Girl a truly luscious show, and it’s exciting to have another official orchestra form. Congratulations to The Production Company on succeeding to bring together fantastic musicians for a smart investment for the company going forward.
It’s interesting to explore the gender norms of Funny Girl’s era presented in today’s context. The major conflicts within the relationship between Brice and Arnstein (other than Arnstein’s illegal actions) revolve around the traditional roles of a man and a woman. Arnstein is looking for a notable partner to round out his image, where Brice adjusts her behaviour to conform to the traditional wife role of unconditional support.
Brice’s success ends up negatively impacting Arnstein because he isn’t the successful, well-known one in the relationship, arguably impacting on how he views his masculinity. While this situation can and does still happen today, it can feel out of place on a stage in 2016. Thankfully, the universal themes throughout Funny Girl allows the show to remain relevant, and tells a wonderful story of a successful woman – something we need to applaud.
Funny Girl is a bright, intelligent show celebrating the underdog who succeeds with an unconventional attitude. It’s a truly fun night at the theatre, and the standing ovation on opening night was very well deserved. The Production Company has opened their 2016 season with a total victory, and has set an exciting tone for the rest of their shows this year.
While everything is truly spectacular in The Production Company’s Funny Girl, Caroline O’Connor tops the cake. She is spectacular to watch. This production is iconic. You won’t want to miss Funny Girl.
Funny Girl is on at the State Theatre at Arts Centre Melbourne until 31 July, 2016.
Photo credit: Jeff Busby