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Passione brings passion to Camelot's 'Funny Girl'

"Funny Girl" is one of those big, bodacious musicals that audiences are guaranteed to eat up. So why isn't it done more often?

It's so linked with Barbra Streisand, who played the lead in both the 1964 Broadway play and the 1968 film, that it's intimidating. Streisand seemed made for the part of Fanny Brice, and she gave a defining performance in the role that made her a star.

Both Stephen Sondheim and Carol Burnett had shied away from the original project, telling producer Ray Stark, who was considering Mary Martin for the lead, that the story "needed a Jewish girl."

Then there's the sheer scope — more than 30 parts, all those great Jule Styne-Bob Merrill songs, dancers, an orchestra.

So the musical is seldom revived. Enter Livia Genise and Talent's Camelot Theatre. Genise, Camelot's artistic director, has wanted to do "Funny Girl" with singer Rose Passione in the title role for a long time, and she was determined the production would be about Fanny Brice, not Barbra Streisand.

Good on both counts. Passione is a wonderfully compelling Fanny, not only belting out all those great songs ("I'm the Greatest Star," "People," "Don't Rain on my Parade") but endowing Fanny with an indomitable will and a kind of street-wise grit that used to be called moxie. And balancing all that with vulnerability. When she sings "I'm the Greatest Star" she could be an "American Idol" contestant or any young performer anywhere.

"Funny Girl" opened Friday night at Camelot in Talent, the last musical that will ever be presented at the converted feed store that's been Camelot's home. "Crimes of the Heart," opening next month, will be the last-ever play before Camelot moves to its new home next door.

Since few people will have seen the thing, let's recap. Fanny Brice was a stage-struck girl from the Lower East Side of New York in the heyday of vaudeville. Her mother discouraged her from a show-biz career. She didn't have the kind of classic beauty producers looked for. But by dint of talent and sheer willpower, she became a star in the Ziegfeld Follies in the World War I era.

The play opens with Fanny a star, awaiting the release of her husband, Nick Arnstein, from prison. Their life together, and Fanny's rise from the streets, are the twin subjects of the play, which takes the form of one long flashback.

Genise, who directed, has a love for big Broadway musicals and a flair for staging them in a small theater. This one often finds the stage filled with 20 or more actors and dancers at a time as a six-piece orchestra — two keyboards, two trumpets, woodwinds, percussion — performs the songs. The musicians are kind of scrunched into the wings behind a drape (there is really no backstage) as pretty dancers hoof and tap to numbers like "Rat-Tat-Tat-Tat." Audrey Flint's choreography is lively throughout.

In the best show-biz tradition, Fanny struggles for a break against long odds. In the matter-of-fact cruelty of the day, "If a Girl Isn't Pretty" gives Fanny, and the audience, an idea of what she's up against. Fanny has no quit in her and responds with tireless ambition ("I'm the Greatest Star"). Passione has a terrific voice and sings with, well, passion.

She becomes pals with Eddie Ryan (Daniel Stephens, oozing good-guy charm), a composite character representing the "little people" Brice either won over, bowled over or otherwise got help from.

She's on the brink of stardom when she meets the gambler Nick Arnstein (Mark B. Ropers), and the romance story begins to displace the tough-kid-makes-it-in-show-biz story. The gleam in Fanny's eye as she delivers numbers like "His Love Makes Me Beautiful" tells us exactly where we are going. And sure enough, she and Nicky are soon doing the mating dance ("You Are Woman, I Am Man").

Passione brings the same all-in guts to the romance that she brought to her career, although it's hard to see why, as Ropers' Nick comes off wooden next to the passionate Fanny. The role requires an actor to be both charming and likeable and a wastrel, and as Fanny's fame grows and Nick's ventures founder, he becomes increasingly humiliated.

"Funny Girl" is not structured as a traditional boy-gets-girl-in-the-end comedy, and Fanny and Nick are soon married, which is a big knock on the door of unhappiness for both. In the second act a fair dose of sentimentalism enters, expressed by Fanny in laments like "Who Are You Now?" Show-biz tales are always thus, drenched in tears.

But the takeaway for audiences won't be the battle of the sexes so much as the battle for stardom waged by a tough-tender girl almost a century ago. I don't know if Passione is Jewish, but she can play ethnic. Amid all the music and the laughs and the spectacle, she puts a deeply human face on the original funny girl.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.