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18 June 2009

Funny Girl

From the C-T

“Funny Girl,” opening the season at Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre, is a most representative, if formulaic, example of 20th century American musical theater. It's full of New York showbiz elements: show girls, show tunes, aspects of vaudeville, a bit of Yiddish, sequins, glamour, star power, impresarios, glitz and lots of dazzling dancing. And it was well chosen for launching a rousing, upbeat, attention-getting summer of theater in the venerable Owen Theatre on the Mars Hill College campus.

Liz Aiello may have been born for the role of Fanny Brice in this slice of pseudo-history from the early life of the famed mid-century comedienne and stage maven. Barbra Streisand is forever associated with both stage and film forms of this story, and with major tunes from the score by Jule Styne. Think “People, people who love people — are the luckiest people in the world...,” and “Don't Rain on my Parade.”

Aiello competes favorably with the Streisand versions of both hits, and interprets all the subtle inflections with panache.

The show calls for a large cast and the stage is often filled with near a score of able actors, all capably coached by show director and company artistic director Bill Gregg. No way to name and comment on all the stellar talent, but some standouts amongst the cast are male lead Christopher Lynn of Asheville, who plays Brice's love interest Nick Arnstein, Peter Tamm as comic foil Eddie Ryan (and the boy can dance), and Chris Caggiano as the Ziegfeld tenor, whose soaring high register is most impressive. Tony Medlin is a mean Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.

Choreographer Heidi Kulas has coached the dozen dancers into an ensemble of note. Amy Thrift, Amber Watson, Mary Ellen Jones, Erin McFarland, Rachel Shipley and Brittany Hazeldine are among a bevy of beauties who kick and wiggle with the best of them. Of the guy dancers Mitchel Hillburn and Mackenzie Knapp are notable magnetic movers and shakers. Some of the dance moves are quite daring and well accomplished.

Leigh Margaret Manning must have had much fun pulling together the garb with which to clothe these more-than-a-score actors.

Hats and shoes, topcoats and bags are all evocative of the roaring '20s, and add much to the visual appeal of the show. Richard Seagle gives us a deep, three-tiered set. Owen Theatre is lacking enough lighting power to fully illuminate the side areas of the broad stage, but light designer Robert Berls does the best with what he has to work with. Nice shadow effects, but brighter spots would be a positive addition.

A spirited, unseen house band is led by Paul Schierhorn, with Virginia McKnight on piano, Ben Clymer on trombone and Tim Morgan playing a mean trumpet for the “Cornet Man” tune. Bruce Lang, James Mathis and Justin Maybry round out the backstage band.

Never before have those crystal chandeliers hanging above the audience in Owen Theatre looked more appropriate than when Nick Arnstein woos Fanny Brice in various upscale locales. Those sparkling fixtures once hung in the lobby of downtown Asheville's Battery Park Hotel. A touch of Ziegfeld, way off-Broadway.

Jim Cavener reviews theater for take5.

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