'Funny Girl' a serious role for actor, director

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May 17—As much as the role of Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl" is talked about for its singing, acting and dancing, Marilyn Bouldin notes one thing that doesn't get talked about a lot: its historic figure.

"When speaking to the cast, I've told them that this is not just a show," said Bouldin, the director of Joplin Little Theatre's production of the famous musical. "We're sharing someone's life story in every line we deliver, and every song that we sing."

"Funny Girl" is a semibiographical story of Brice, a trailblazing actress who rose to stardom from the Ziegfeld Follies in the early 20th century. That launched a career that spanned across Broadway, film and radio, as well as TV once that technology evolved. Her work paved the way for Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball and other respected female comedic actors.

The theater's run of the show started Wednesday and runs until Sunday.

Iconic role

First opened on Broadway in 1964, the musical focuses on Brice's relationship with gambler and businessman Nicky Arnstein and tells the story about how a plucky, determined actress who didn't meet the immediate beauty standards of the Follies eventually transformed them. That run featured Barbara Streisand, who made the role iconic and inspirational.

In theater circles, the role of Brice is considered one of the more challenging roles to take on — a dream role on the same level as Jean Valjean in "Les Miserables" or Elphaba in "Wicked."

The song "Don't Rain on My Parade" is a standard inclusion in actress repertoires. The role is a central plot point for Lea Michele's character in the TV show "Glee"; Michele is also currently playing the role in a Broadway revival.

Count Michaela West among the actresses who grew up with "Glee" and relished a chance to take on the role.

"It has been a dream role for a very long time," West said. "Ever since I realized that I could do it, I've had the nose for it."

Playing Brice takes a strong command of acting skills, Bouldin said. She found such an actor in West.

"I was looking for someone who had the chops to belt out musical numbers, who could handle singing so much through the entire show," Bouldin said. "I also needed an actor who could be innately goofy, funny and tender all in one."

One of Bouldin's big surprises about "Funny Girl" deals with Joplin Little Theatre's history of it — or rather, the lack of it. Bouldin said that, while producing the musical has been talked about, this is the first time it has actually moved forward.

West said Joplin Little Theatre is not alone in that regard.

"It's an underproduced musical," West said. "I think it's partly because you really need to have someone essentially carry the show. It's not a one-woman show, but Fanny is on stage for most of it. That's not physically easy or emotionally easy."

Her story

Bouldin said that Brice has been an inspiration for a number of years because of her attitude and determination. Going way beyond the musical, Bouldin has read and watched a number of works about Brice's life, and part of her excitement for leading the production comes from her admiration.

Part of Bouldin's collection of Brice memorabilia will be featured during the show's run, such as her actual sheet music and a sketch of her drawn by her son.

Brice was not known as a classic beauty of her day, Bouldin said. She relied on her talent and attitude to win people over, from audience members in the seats to the directors running the theater. Bouldin said Brice had an effect on theater, radio, Broadway and even Hollywood.

"She was such an independent woman and brought so much to theater," Bouldin said. "She changed the face of the Follies. She wasn't a typical girl, but she made it happen, and that takes some chutzpah."

While "Funny Girl" covers an important part of Brice's life and how her career was indirectly influenced by Arnstein, it leaves out other things that Bouldin wishes it would cover, such as Brice's life after splitting from the embezzler.

Though Bouldin was well informed about Brice, once she started analyzing the script as a director, another aspect emerged.

"The insecurities that Fanny obviously had to have experienced struck me," Bouldin said. "Sure, everyone told her she was amazing, but there were nuanced insecurities that needed to be part of the story."

West said one of the challenges of taking on the role is to separate the work that Streisand did. She found ways to do that by focusing on Brice, she said.

Ready to role

Now, like an athlete before a big game, West prepares for a physical and emotional workout on stage. Keeping exertion minimal throughout the day and staying hydrated, West keeps her body and mind ready for the demanding role until the run's final show Sunday.

She said she is grateful for all the cast members making the show's run fantastic, and also grateful for the opportunity to take on the part.

"Sometimes this feels like a one-woman show, but so many deserve the credit for making this what it is," West said. "We have an amazing cast and crew. This is going to be an excellent show, and I can't wait for people to see it."