Cape Town has become a city of musicals. One musical closes and another invariably opens, as is currently the situation.
The excellent Priscilla Queen of the Desert wraps up on Monday (April 23) at Artscape (see it, if you can nab a ticket).
Meanwhile, the much anticipated rom-com Funny Girl has been previewing at the Fugard Theatre and opens officially on Wednesday (April 26).
The cast of 18 is headed by Joburg-based Ashleigh Harvey (Fanny Brice) and Cape Town’s Clyde Berning (Nick Arnstein).
This is the South African premiere of the musical which has been revived in the UK and the US, over the last few years – to rapturous reviews.
The Fugard’s musical theatre creative team conceptualises its own unique take on musicals. The Fugard’s productions of Rocky Horror, Cabaret and West Side Story have all been critically acclaimed and played to sold out houses.
So, the Funny Girl we are seeing is a new production – not seen anywhere else. The creative team includes Matthew Wild (director), Louisa Talbot (choreography), Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (musical direction), Saul Radomsky (set design), Birrie le Roux (costume design) and lighting is by Daniel Galloway and Benjamin du Plessis.
Funny Girl is a bio-musical, based on the tumultuous real life story of comedienne Fanny Brice (born in 1891) who died in 1951, age 69. Despite not being a "traditional starlet beauty", she had a meteoric rise from music hall and vaudeville.
In the swinging 1920s and early 1930s she became a Ziegfeld Follies showgirl, a Broadway star and a film star. Behind the success, her personal life was fraught with complication.
The public was captivated by the Fanny Brice magic and her life as a celebrity and her interactions with her bad-boy husband Nick Arnstein (a professional gambler and convicted felon) which made her very much someone to relate to.
The musical premiered on Broadway in 1964. Barbra Streisand reprised the role she made famous on Broadway, in the film of the same name.
Interestingly, up to a few years ago, there had not been professional revivals of the musical on stage.
Reviews of the various revival productions abroad have generally been glowing, with reviewers remarking on the feel-good vibe; the delicious character of Fanny Brice, the stirring songs, the glamour and glitz evoked through recreating the 1920s glamour of Hollywood.
For its production of Funny Girl, the Fugard has made an inspired choice in the casting of Harvey. I watched a rehearsal and was mesmerised by Harvey and Berning.
The chemistry is there and they are in fine musical form. The script is hilarious.
Funny Girl hinges on the character of Fanny Brice and Harvey clearly has the voice and comedic smarts to bring her to life.
An accomplished actress (she was nominated for a Naledi award for Death of a Colonialist - staged in Cape Town in 2014), Harvey has paid her dues in the musical theatre industry (The Rocky Horror Show, Shrek, Mulan), but Funny Girl is the first time she is taking on the leading role.
It was a role that she always dreamed of playing.
She identifies with the fact that Fanny was very much her own woman - refusing to bow to societal expectations. Harvey muses, “This musical is full of pathos and intimacy and big emotion. I love the fact that Fanny was different and that she wasn’t afraid of her quirkiness. The world is too obsessed with physical perfection and beauty. Some of the most beautiful people in the world just don’t fit the usual beauty mould: Streisand, Meryl Streep, Bette Midler, and Serena Williams. They’re gorgeous and powerful and interesting.”
Radomsky’s detailed set portrays the backstage of a late Victorian theatre, framing and contextualising the story. Le Roux’s glam costumes (150 costumes and a hectic number of costume changes) are exquisitely rendered in satins, velvets, pearls etc. and conjure up the glitz and opulence of 1930s Hollywood, Ziegfeld Follies and the Gibson Girls.
The outstanding cast includes numerous Fleur du Cap Theatre Award winners and nominees such as Kate Normington (Mrs Brice), Diane Wilson (Mrs Strakosh), Michele Maxwell (Mrs Meeker), Mike Huff (Florenz Ziegfeld), Cameron Botha (Eddie Ryan), Grant Towers (Tom Keeney) and Lucy Tops (Emma).
Funny Girl is from Tuesdays to Fridays at 8pm and on Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm. Tickets are R130-R350. Book at www.computicket.com/0861 9158000 or call the Fugard on 021 461 4554