Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Girl On Fire

Girl On Fire

By Tom Wachunas

The story of the musical “Funny Girl” (which premiered on Broadway, starring Barbra Streisand, in 1964) is that of the beloved comedienne, singer, and actress Fanny Brice, who rocketed to show business fame during the 1920s and 30s with the Ziegfeld Follies, along with radio hits and Broadway shows. So it’s something of a curious irony that the most noticeable shortcoming of the current North Canton Playhouse youth production of this musical is the orchestration. More precisely, the lack of it. While appreciating the space limitations of the mainstage auditorium, I still wonder if at least a quartet or trio could have somehow been accommodated. As it is, the solo piano accompaniment by Suzanne Meyers is certainly for the most part competent, but too often tones down the proceedings to the level of a recital rather than a full-out musical. So it’s really up to the performers on stage to carry the considerable weight and verve of the music (by Jule Styne with lyrics by Bob Merrill).

To be fair, this is a “youth version” and that often brings with it, understandably, varying levels of still-developing theatrical abilities. But Director Brenton Cochran has once again demonstrated his knack for identifying and polishing raw talent, and eliciting infectiously energetic performances. So while there are certainly some rough edges here, on the whole this very large cast (numbering 37 members) delivers a memorably invigorating evening.

Some of the most hilarious interludes are provided in scenes featuring Maria Richards as Mrs. Brice (Fanny’s mother), who delightfully captures the character’s wry Jewish humor, along with her poker-playing cronies, the eccentric and nosy Mrs. Strakosh, played by Sarah Jane Toy, and the loud, besotted Mrs. O’Malley, played to the hilt by Alexa Mittica. As the family friend and confidant Eddie, Brian Bruno is lithe and limber, with a solid singing voice and great sense of comedic timing. And in his authentic portrayal of real concern and perhaps latent longing for Fanny, I found myself rooting for him to win her hand. But that connection is made by one Nick Arnstein, the debonair gambler prone to shady business deals. In that role, Kirby Flowers is every bit the convincingly suave suitor and loving supporter of - and later a financial and emotional drain on - Fanny’s success, not to mention the failed marriage. For all of his impressive stage presence, though, his singing lacks consistent passion, so he’s a bit of a mismatch with the endearingly dominant character of Fanny.

Which brings us to the astonishing talents of Hannah Shepler. Did I just say ‘talents of’…? Make that …phenomenon. Talk about perfect casting, the diminutive Shepler doesn’t just play the role of Fanny so much as be possessed by it. In the process, somehow she has managed to morph into an uncanny if not haunting hybrid of Streisand’s vocal muscle and Liza Minnelli’s electrifying panache of old. Sure, her immersion in that sassy New York dialect can be so affected that her rapid-fire spoken lines are at times indecipherable, her singing occasionally too clipped when you expect a word or phrase ending to soar a little longer. But these flaws are easily corrected with continuing experience. At the tender age of 16, the irrepressible Shepler is nonetheless the heart and soul of this production, and a rising star in her own right. While she may yet be something of a diamond in the rough, many of her remarkable facets have already acquired a dazzling, fiery shine.

Photo, courtesy North Canton Playhouse: Hannah Sheppler is Fanny Brice, and Kirby Flowers is Nick Arnstein in the North Canton Playhouse production of “Funny Girl.” The musical runs through January 30 on the mainstage, located in Hoover High School, 525 7th Street NE in North Canton. Shows are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, Sundays at 2:30pm. Tickets are $10 for all ages. To order, call (330) 494 -1613, or visit

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