Review / Understudy gives a towering lead to ‘Funny Girl’

musical theatre / “Funny Girl”. Music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, directed by Jarrad West. At Q Theatre, Queanbeyan, to September 3. Reviewed by LEN POWER  

“WHO is the pip with pizzazz?” sings Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl”. On opening night at the Q Theatre in Queanbeyan, it was undoubtedly Philippa “Pip” Murphy in a towering performance as the early 20th century singer-comedienne made famous in the 1960s by Barbra Streisand, the original “Funny Girl”.

Philippa Murphy in "Funny Girl".

Philippa Murphy in “Funny Girl”.

That old theatre cliché of the understudy taking the place of an ailing star does come true now and again. Murphy, the understudy for the role, did the opening-night performance due to the indisposition of Vanessa de Jager.

The show’s strength is in the performances. Michelle Klemke is terrific as Fanny Brice’s mother, Rose. Joel Hutchings scores strongly as the troubled husband, Nick Arnstein. Will Huang is very appealing as Fanny’s friend and mentor, Eddie. Peter Dark, Shennia Spillane and Dave Smith also give good performances.

The focus of this show is the star performance of the actress playing Fanny Brice. It’s a formidable role needing a singer who can belt strongly as well as sing sensitive ballads and be a comedienne who can play strong drama. Philippa Murphy ticked all the boxes, giving a memorable performance in the role. For any actress taking on this role, the pressure is enormous. If Murphy was feeling the pressure, she certainly didn’t show it. Her performance was assured throughout. It was just a pity that the most famous number in the show, “People”, was staged with her sitting at a table to the side of the stage, killing any chance for the actress to stop the show with it.

There was fine musical direction by Rose Shorney for the voices but the orchestra playing on opening night was quite unsettled. Choreography by Amy Fitzpatrick captured the style of the era as did the costumes by Suzan Cooper. Lighting design by Hamish McConchie was fine but there was some strange flickering happening during the second act. Sound levels were well balanced between singers and orchestra.

Jarrad West’s production is strong on period detail but is hampered by an impractical and unattractive set which limits the playing areas. A large theatre proscenium and stage with steps takes up much of the space but is hardly used. Despite the set piece’s size, its stage is too small and the show numbers are mostly played in front of it rather than on it. Other scenes were played in cramped areas to the sides of the stage. The song, “Find Yourself A Man” was especially limited by this. Some key dialogue scenes had the focus pulled away from them by distracting actions of some chorus members in the background.

However, this is an entertaining production of a show not often staged. It’s the performances of the principal performers that make it well worth seeing.

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