Production Company: Funny Girl

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Published: 24th July, 2016

There’s only one way to describe the opening show of The Production Company’s 2016 music theatre season.

Funny Girl is a hit.

On opening night a packed State Theatre seemed to feel as one, thoroughly enjoying the show, with petite dynamo Caroline O’Connor (pictured) reprising the role she performed for TPC in 1999. And the past 17 years have certainly not wearied this Australian and international music theatre star.

Funny Girl is not often staged simply because of the demands the leading role of Fanny Brice places on a performer. If you don’t get the casting of the real-life Ziegfeld Follies star right, then you simply don’t have a show.

And The Production Company got just about everything right on opening night.

The show traces the story of Fanny Brice’s rise to fame and her life away from the stage. It’s a story full of humour, with those many witty one-liners delivered by O’Connor with panache. But what makes it a success is not the laugh a minute factor, but way it seamlessly combines humour and pathos – in the few sad scenes that tug at your heart, you could have heard a pin drop, such was the connection with the audience.

Melbourne is so fortunate that O’Connor had a gap in her English and American performance schedule and could return to recreate the magic that only she can deliver. She sings, dances and acts at the highest possible level, and has the audience in the palm of her hand from her first appearance. There really are not enough words to describe her brilliance.

But a fine leading lady alone does not a show make, and director Gale Edwards’ casting is inspired.

Operatic tenor David Hobson has been broadening his horizons in recent years, and after seeing him in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang a couple of years ago, it was obvious that this is his new forte. Described as having matinee idol looks, he slips easily into the character of charming gambler Nick Arnstein, and it’s wonderful to see the onstage chemistry between his and O’Connor’s characters. In this role, he swaps his tenor range for more of a baritone sound, which thrilled the audience. It’s a fine performance and I hope Hobson is offered many more music theatre leading man roles, because he has a stage charisma that really suits this medium.

What was very pleasing to this “39 and holding” reviewer, was the fact that of the nine solo roles, all but eight would be well over 40! Although the lovely trio of veteran stage performers, Nancye Hayes, Judith Roberts and Jan Russ would definitely be in possession of their Seniors’ cards, the polish and magic they bring to their roles warmed my heart.

In the role of Fanny’s mother, Hayes is given plenty of opportunity to use her famous comic timing, and it’s a beautifully rounded performance. In the smaller role of gossipy neighbour Mrs Strakosh, Susan-ann Walker hits just the right note in every way. Judith Roberts as Mrs Brice’s friend Mrs O’Malley, and Jan Russ (a TV casting director for 24 years who has returned to the stage!) as Fanny’s loyal retainer Emma, bring a lovely warmth to the stage and it was a pleasure to see them up there.

Greg Stone’s role as Tom Keeney, the man who gives Fanny her first break, is polished and pleasing. He would be very familiar to Melbourne Theatre Company audiences and never delivers a bad performance. As Florenz Ziegfeld, David Ross Paterson brings a lovely gravitas leavened by a dry wit – no wonder he is in demand across the world in film and television.

The one young principal, Luke Alleva, does a fabulous job as Eddie Ryan, who helps Fanny break into theatre and loses his heart to her but stays by her side through thick and thing. Alleva is a superb dancer and singer and totally believable in this role.

Lighting designer Trudy Dalgleish creates magical effects with the one staircase set, and costume designers Tim Chappel and Owen Phillips have done a magnificent job.

The Production Company now has its own orchestra, and Anthony Gabriele obviously enjoyed conducting this talented group of players.

Kelley Abbey’s choreography is seamless and well executed, and director Gale Edwards’s deft hand is at its best in this show.

There were a few opening night glitches with the orchestral sound starting off too loud, but this was soon remedied, and a couple of dropped props and wrong word at one stage simply added to the frisson of being in the theatre.

Quite simply, it’s a great show – don’t miss it!

Funny Girl is showing until Sunday July 31.