review: one night with fanny brice

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One Night With Fanny Brice

Written and directed by Chip Deffaa
Featuring Kimberly Faye Greenberg
St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 West 46th Street
production web site: http://stlukestheatre.com/

April 3, 2011 — ongoing

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
May 21, 2011

Kimberly Faye Greenberg as Fanny Brice.

I spend part of “Rapture Day” (yes we’re all still here) with Fanny Brice and an audience of over 70s at St. Luke’s Theatre.  I’ve known Brice on the page in many biographies and histories of burlesque and vaudeville and early 20th century radio.  I’ve known Brice on the screen as herself in gems such as Everybody Sing (1938) in which she plays Olga the cook in a theatrical household featuring luminaries such as mother Billie Burke and daughter Judy Garland.  And I have known Brice on the screen as played by Streisand in Funny Girl (1968) and Funny Lady (1975).  Brice was a woman of warmth,  intelligence, survival, unmistakable talent and riveting personal charisma, with a lovely soprano voice and a sure-footed sense of comedic timing.  And that woman is not often present in this production.

Chip Leffaa‘s one-woman play instructs us on many details of Brice’s life skimmed over in prior dramatizations, and reveals a real appreciation for the numbers Brice made famous.  The play does not maintain an assured, clear structure as a play told from beyond the grave.  Who are we in the audience throughout this show?  Brice believed in the spirit world, she tells us, and because she is here on stage we should believe it too — and no further dramatic effort is expended upon clarifying the relationship of the storytelling performer on stage to the members of the audience in this show that is not set during an event during Brice’s lifetime (1891-1951) but rather this night in this theatre speaking to this audience.  Why has this performer decided to appear to tell us in this audience these stories at this particular point in time?  To clarify the record?  To have one more chance with the tunes that she loved during her lifetime?  This is a challenge to the playwright and a challenge to the performer taking on this role in this particular script.  Aside from this key structural challenge to a one person show like this, Deffaa has selected nicely from the breadth of Brice’s life: stories, songs, people she knew and loved.

The real challenges in this production as a production and not a script on the page are the direction by playwright Deffaa and dimensions of the performance of our leading lady Kimberly Faye Greenberg.  Ms. Greenberg handles coy smirking — one dimension of a minority of the tunes in Brice’s repertoire — but misses the rich dimensions of a mature woman.  She can’t seem to resist showing us her winning smile even in the middle of a solemn ballad, or to place her hand on her hip while telling almost every story.  Part of the problem may be that she and her director seem not to have decided upon an age that makes sense for this Brice as story-teller to be telling us the story of her life.  Is she in her 20s (as our actress appears to be)?  In her 30s?  Age 59 as Brice was when she passed away?  This is not a small detail — this addresses the form and content of the storytelling that links the musical performances.  Illustrative to me of some directorial misfires are choices made with “Rose of Washington Square”– a 1920 ballad about a Greenwich Village woman with a past.  Our Fanny presents this tune as comedy (which recordings by Brice herself never did), with lead footed tap dancing, for laughs, in both the first act and reprised in the second.  Another jarring sequence occurs in the second act during which Fanny dons her tap shoes while she presents a version of her federal court testimony during one of second husband Nicky Arnstein‘s trials (a first marriage lasted a few days in her early days in burlesque) feels simply derivative of Bob Fosse use of this idea in 1975’s Chicago with Billy Flynn’s “Razzle Dazzle”.

The show as a whole feels like watching a pretty young woman don lovely costumes and present tunes she hasn’t yet the maturity to sing.  All the stories are told with the same relentless rhythm; all the songs are sung with the same raspy belt.  There feels to be no depth of field in this performance.

Costumes by Renee Purdy are delightful. The spare set by Josh Iacovelli is functional — though one can wonder why there is an upright piano on stage that is not played while another is played just a few feet away during the show’s musical numbers.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 22, 2011)

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