Julie Benko Triumphs as Standby Fanny Brice in ‘Funny Girl’

Guest Post by Mara Sandroff

Since the official opening of the long-awaited Broadway revival of Funny Girl on April 24th – the first Broadway revival of Funny Girl ever after over fifty years – the theatre community has spent significant energy debating Beanie Feldstein’s performance as Fanny Brice (the starring role).

Beanie has the mixed blessing of following BARBRA STREISAND – one of the world’s most legendary performers – who shot into the entertainment stratosphere like a rocket when she was nominated for a Tony as Fanny in 1964 (Bab’s first starring role on Broadway), and then won an Oscar in the film adaptation of Funny Girl in 1969 (Bab’s very first Big Screen performance).

Standby Julie Benko is now my greatest star.

But I didn’t have to worry about Beanie because I knew, when I bought my ticket, that I would see her standby. (Beanie had planned the April 29th absence well in advance.) So, although I can’t comment on Beanie’s performance, I definitely can say this: Standby Julie Benko is now my greatest star.

I had the great good fortune of seeing Julie in her debut performance, and she was, in a word, luminescent. She capably pulled us through Fanny Brice’s emotional journey from starry-eyed girl (who thinks the stage is all that matters) to heartbroken woman (who knows painfully well it is not).

Julie has a more than a passing resemblance to the real Fanny Brice, and from her big-eyed expressions and pitch-perfect Yiddish accent in the “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat” number, it is clear she has done her Vaudeville homework. Julie’s clear voice soars whether she is drawing on her jazz background for “Cornet Man,” or belting “Don’t Rain on My Parade” (the song that brought down the house at my performance). Hers is a gentler Fanny than we may have seen before, and her interpretation of this iconic character is completely fresh.

On a personal level, I found myself totally emotional by the show’s end. (In Yiddish, we use the word “farklempt.”) My bubbie (that’s Yiddish for grandmother) used to sing Fanny’s songs, and seeing her so lovingly brought to life filled me with Jewish pride. Though a part of me will always long for a less sanitized Funny Girl – one that captures Fanny’s real toils and doesn’t place romance at the center – I also cherish any opportunity to hang out with Fanny Brice.

Admittedly, the aura of Babs-in-the-Room will always be there…

Admittedly, the aura of Babs-in-the-Room will always be there because so many of us have heard Barbra Streisand sing songs from Funny Girl on TV, in live concerts, &/or on many of her most popular multiple Grammy-winning albums. (And some of us may even have the Original Broadway Cast album from 1964 &/or the film’s soundtrack from 1968 in our personal collections). Many of the new songs specifically created for Funny Girl – such as “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” – were written for her by Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics), and it’s impossible not to hear Babs’s influence in Julie’s vocal inflections.

I’d argue, however, that this has only made Julie’s take stronger. Julie’s performance both pays homage to Babs and brings something new.

I am not the only one kvelling about Julie’s performance. On social media and theatre forums, people are nearly unanimous in their love for Julie. In my years as a theatre fan, I have never seen so much discussion and enthusiasm about a standby or understudy. Julie’s first weekend was only a week after Funny Girl’s opening, which may be one reason she has gotten so much buzz. It’s also likely that after Beanie’s press went viral, more people were paying attention, though both Julie and Beanie deserve t0 be evaluated and appreciated on their own merits. Me? I am fully rooting for Beanie, and I do hope to see the show again with her in the lead.

Of course, Julie’s performance does not erase the problems inherent in the show itself. Harvey Fierstein has done some updating of Isobel Lennart’s original book, but hasn’t resolved the pacing, and the songs we don’t remember are mostly forgettable. It’s hard to believe that “Temporary Arrangement” – smartly cut from the original production – was written by the same composer as “People.” And although the gorgeously-voiced Jeremiah James (who played Fanny’s husband Nick Arnstein at my performance), gave it his all, “Nicky Arnstein! Nicky Arnstein!” remains a hazy character, far less interesting than his real-life counterpart.

So, Broadway’s Funny Girl 2022 is not a perfect production. Some of the staging and choreography is inspired, but in other cases? No so much. And, sadly, there were abundant sound problems, especially in the Irving Berlin inspired comic number “Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat.”

…not just performance skills, but backstage resilience…

On the other hand, moving the “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?” number from Act One to Act Two is a good call, making it clear that the lessons Fanny learned from her mother “Rose” and her choreographer “Eddie Ryan” included not just performance skills, but backstage resilience.

However, this brings up the perplexed casting of Jane Lynch as “Mrs Brice.” Jane is appealing as she does her usual schtick, but, annoyingly, she slips in and out of her Brooklyn accent. Beanie, Julie, and understudy Ephie Aardema are all Jewish, so why was casting a Jewish actor as Mrs. Brice – or at least one with Jewish sensibilities – less important to the producers?

In the end, though, for audiences eager to reminisce and hear their favorite songs, none of the naysaying is likely to matter. During our favorite numbers, the joy of most audience members was palpable. And after seeing Julie succeed, it’s hard not to wonder if producers have been overthinking the “Streisand Factor.”

Funny Girl works wonderfully with a Fanny in Babs’s mold. We come not to forget Barbra Streisand, but to celebrate her cultural impact – not just on her audiences but on all the performers who came after her.

With a strong Fanny at its center, Funny Girl’s sins – such as they are – are readily forgiven, and all Barbra Streisand fans are encouraged to come and enjoy.

© Mara Sandroff (5/4/2) – Special for FF2 Media®

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Visit Julie Benko’s website.

Listen to Julie sing.

Read review of Julie Benko’s performance by Suzanna Bowling on Times Square Chronicle.

Visit the Funny Girl on Broadway website & order your tickets now!

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured Photo: Kudos to Tyler Schusko for this fabulous photo of Julie’s curtain call! And huge thanks for permission to post. © Tyler Schusko. All Rights Reserved. Follow Tyler aka Ty-le® @_tyler_isms https://twitter.com/_tyler_isms. 

Crop of Julie’s CD cover comes from her website.

Bottom photo is from Julie’s Instagram account.

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Mara Sandroff is a fiction writer and essayist based in Brooklyn (NY) & Tucson (AZ). She currently writes literary criticism for Newcity Lit and is an MFA candidate in fiction at New York University.

Tags: Barbra Streisand, Beanie Feldstein, Fanny Brice, Funny Girl, Funny Girl (2022), Irving Berlin, Isobel Lennart, Jane Lynch, Julie Benko, Mara Sandroff, Vaudeville

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