Bona fide star enlivens 'Funny Girl'


"Funny Girl" will be forever famous in the history of the Broadway stage as the show that made Barbra Streisand a star.

The musical, though, tells the story of another star: Fanny Brice, the plain-looking Jewish girl from New York's Lower East Side who became a show business phenomenon in the days of vaudeville, radio and the Ziegfeld Follies.

Although Brice's inimitable characters, such as "Baby Snooks," brought her wealth and fame, they didn't buy happiness. Her marriage to handsome gambler Nick Arnstein went bad when his shady business dealings shook their relationship to the core.

Full of laughter and some tears, "Funny Girl" is still a marvelous vehicle for a gifted actress - and for the supporting cast that's required to sell the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill music and lyrics, which sparkle after all these years.

So it is with pleasure that I report that Chesapeake Music Hall's "Funny Girl," which plays through June 17, is the most enjoyable show I've seen at the Annapolis dinner theater in recent memory. Characters are colorful, energy is high, voices are on the mark and - most important - there's a bona fide star around which the whole thing can revolve.

Anita O'Conner doesn't give us the brash ethnicity of a Streisand (who could?), but she's a pleasure to watch in the pivotal role of Fanny Brice.

Cute and appealing as a young show biz wannabe in "I'm the Greatest Star," her opening song, O'Conner mutates convincingly into the polished and classy trouper who delivers an elegant "Music That Makes Me Dance" in the show's penultimate scene.

O'Conner's Fanny Brice is no belter, but she's a smart, sensitive singer who knows how to harness her lyrical resources in pursuit of a telling crescendo.

So although standards such as "People" and "Don't Rain on My Parade" don't blast you out of your chair when they peak, they are plenty dramatic, nevertheless.

O'Conner also can play for a laugh. Indeed, her hilarious massacre of a stuffy Ziegfeld bridal number provides some of the heartiest yuks of the evening.

Best of all, though, is the sophisticated interaction the star is able to achieve with her fellow actors.

There's genuine chemistry between O'Conner and Alan Hoffman, who is exceptional as Brice's caddish but loving husband. Attraction is in the air when they meet (although I wish Fanny's songful repetition of Arnstein's name carried more dramatic weight); and the seduction scene in a Baltimore hotel is deftly played.

Synergistic energy also flows in Fanny's friendship with her mentor, Eddie Ryan, played with considerable charm by Charlie Rogers, and is evident in her supportive, strong-willed Mama, played with flair by Tere Fulmer.

O'Conner's one problem with the part is that she's far too attractive a woman for the lines alluding to Fanny's plain appearance to carry much weight.

Indeed, her good looks and a terrible costuming decision combine to wreak havoc on the production number in which Fanny, in a thick Yiddish accent, plays a soldier from World War I. When O'Conner, who should be dressed in uniform as a goofy-looking doughboy, enters bedecked in a shining red, white and blue outfit - looking like the glamorous Miss Pennsylvania she once was - all comedic bets are off.

"Funny Girl" is being presented Friday and Saturday evenings, and Sunday afternoon, with some Thursday evenings and Wednesday matinees.

Ticket prices range from $29.50 to $32.50. Tickets or information: 410-626-7515 or 800-406-0306.

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