Thursday, February 29, 2024

'Funny Girl' at Wharton Center explores a historical story with modern themes

February 11, 2024
<p>Firsrt national touring company performs "Funny Girl." Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy. </p>

Firsrt national touring company performs "Funny Girl." Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy.

"Funny Girl" ran at Michigan State University's Wharton Center from Feb. 6 to 11. The show’s touring cast aimed to tell a story that challenges viewer's perceptions of love and performance.

The recently revived classic told the semi-biographical story of Fanny Brice, an early twentieth-century performer. In the show, Brice is confronted by the beauty standards and romantic expectations of the time as she tries to break into show business.

The musical experienced a Broadway revival in 2022 and was brought further back into the public eye when it picked up "Glee" star Lea Michele to star as Fanny Brice.

Izaiah Montaque Harris plays Eddie Ryan in the production. Ryan is a fellow performer and friend with feelings for Brice. Harris said he was excited to play Ryan because of the dedication of this production's cast and crew.

"I get to sing at a beautiful level right beside Melissa Manchester and Barbara Tirrell, as well as tap dance with choreography by Ayodele Casel," Harris said. "I love every aspect of it, to be honest."

Harris believes what made this group special was its makeup of storytellers.

"I think what makes them special is that they believe in telling a good story," he said. "Sometimes in life we're with people that would rather just treat it as a job — treat it as a mindless activity. The people here are very mindful and they believe in the story that we're telling. It shows on stage and off stage, and in how well we gel together so that every single performance is just as alive as the first one."

MSU theatre professor Laura MacDonald said the story was a complex and important one to tell. While the show is set in the early twentieth century, she said, it is a product of its time.

"Although 'Funny Girl' is set in the past, I think it's reacting to that 1960s historical moment in that it's literally making space for a transgressive woman: Fanny Brice," MacDonald said. "Throughout the show, she is letting us know that she's different, that she doesn't fit in, that she looks funny, that she is funny, that she breaks the rules."

MacDonald added that even though the show stars a feminist character, it's important that said character interacts with constraints of the time period the show is set within. This was essential in depicting Fanny Brice's life, she said. 

"It's simultaneously telling us about the real Fanny Brice while also making space for a woman's experience as a performer, as a wife and as a mother — but insisting that those experiences be framed in the past and not in the present," MacDonald said.

Annaliese Wilbur is a swing in the production. Being an offstage swing means preparing to fill in for any ensemble role that's out without the opportunity to perform alongside other cast members in a normal rehearsal setting. Wilbur said they believe that this story is an accurate depiction of the life of a performer and the impact that performance can have.

"It doesn't matter what kind of day an actor is having because at the end of the day, we have a job to do," Wilbur said. "It's beautiful because it can be an emotional escape for an actor, but it can also be an opportunity to tell a story and change someone's life in the audience."

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