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In Funny Girl, Katerina McCrimmon Blazes

The first national tour of Funny Girl brings staggering talent to Grand Rapids.

Funny Girl (onstage until Sept. 24 via Broadway Grand Rapidsrises or falls on Fanny Brice. Even more so than most musicals, its star is its star — the body around which everything else orbits. If she doesn’t burn brightly enough, the audience is left cold.

Fortunately, Katerina McCrimmon (as Fanny Brice) has talent to burn. She’s staggeringly charismatic. She’s funny, yes. Given the title, she’d better be. But she’s achingly human, too. She sang so well that, more than once, I found myself shivering.

The musical tells a true story (more or less). Fanny Brice, the US-born child of immigrants, came to fame in the early 20th century. After dropping out of school to work in burlesque, she began to perform with the Ziegfeld Follies. Surrounded by those famous beauties, she had a less traditional charm. However, she played into her comedic gifts — making her name and, not incidentally, her fortune.

She’s ensconced in a warm, lively environment, Her mother (Melissa Manchester) and other old ladies play poker and trade wisecracks. It is, crucially, a Jewish world. McCrimmon is not Jewish, a fact that’s caused some consternation online. That someone should be upset by this casting is not unreasonable. But McCrimmon inhabits her character comfortably, respectfully, and (best of all, for this audience member) convincingly.

In “I Am The Greatest Star,” young Fanny reveals her ambitions. The lyrics, which are not always great (she sings triumphantly of her “ten American toes”), are less important than the power of the melody and the singer’s defiant confidence. Ready or not, she’s coming for you.

Into Fanny's life slides Nick Arnstein (Stephen Mark Lucas). He dresses like a man at a formal ball and gambles like a disreputable cousin, but she likes him anyway. As she rises, she falls more deeply in love with him (for better and for worse).

Thinking of Arnstein, she sings “People,” one of the show’s two iconic songs. It was impossible not to hear the influence of Barbra Streisand, who first played Brice. It was less distracting than impressive. Those are big shoes to fill, but she did so.

The other iconic song is, of course, “Don’t Rain On My Parade.” It’s one of Broadway’s great anthems. A tribute to throwing yourself into life, it’s also knowing — after all, the rain is going to come, like it or not. Anyone who saw McCrimmon perform the song without getting a frisson should schedule a physical.

Funny Girl, an almost sixty-year-old musical about events that took place a century ago, will remain relevant as long as there are people out there with big hearts, glittering dreams, and the knowledge that the path to getting what they’d always wanted is to realize they now want something more.

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