The life and loves of Fanny Brice come alive in this stellar performance by Esther Covington who carries the show with charisma and charm, accompanied by talented musical director Tom Fuller. This American Century Theater production captures the high and low notes of this icon who set the tone for modern screwball comedy. As noted in some of the reference material, before there was a Lucy or Ethel, Gracie Allen or even Imogene Coco, Fanny Brice showed what could be done with a reaction shot, an exaggerated expression or a well turned phrase—she had a gift for comedy and could make ‘em laugh.
Born Fania Borach, her stage presence was apparent from the beginning, at least in the eyes of her adoring father who encouraged her and her frosty though protective stage mother who orchestrated her early career. The play traces Brice’s humble beginnings and her rise to stardom, where each opportunity comes as a surprise to everyone, especially Brice, who sees herself as homely and mediocre but with unstoppable determination.
Covington brings an enormous amount of talent, wit, and playful expression to her character. She takes on the mannerisms of a precocious child star who matures from a willful adolescent to burlesque starlet with ease. She moves with a winning style and even tap dances enough to get the job done. While her singing voice won’t win accolades, it’s strong enough to belt out the show’s key memorable numbers.
The script by Chip Deffaa noted that burlesque was regarded as crass and low class, but that Brice embraced her raucous beginnings, perfected comedic timing and crowd-pleasing delivery, learned from the masters, and excelled to the highest. In one interesting nugget, Brice seemed to discover her own special knack, a heightened awareness in sizing up people and crowds. Slowly but surely, bit by opportunistic bit, she went from earning coins and dollars to megabucks at the top of her game.
Unfortunately, that special knack didn’t keep her from falling for the dashing, smooth talking “Nicky” Arnstein who took every opportunity to yank her down, empty her bank roll and keep her in emotional upheaval, even into their golden years. There was just no end to his philandering, racketeering ways or her determination to bail him out, almost in spite of herself. Torch songs, such as “My Man,” tapped straight into her life story, and Covington sings them with the impassioned plea of a head-over-heels dame on the edge of devastation who refuses to tip over. Covington conveys the tumultuous emotional rides, the “just one last time” rescuing mentality, hinting at the character’s underlying insecurity and inferiority complex that kept her stuck in that unending spiral. It’s a commendable performance.
Aspects of the accompaniment however, are not as commendable. Granted there’s a lot of music, and Fuller covers a range of old-styled arrangements, furiously turning his own pages in some of the fast-paced segments, so a few slipped notes and missed chords are forgivable. Still, he and Covington sometimes seem out of synch, and if nothing else he needs to be more attentive to the volume so as not to drown her out or give the impression that she’s struggling to be heard.
Lighting designer Steven L. Barker sets the mood and tone for the multiple scenes with care, and multi-talented costume designer Rip Claassen creates a winner with Brice’s crinoline style dress, a beautifully black and white layered work of art that fits all aspects of her character as she progresses from age 9 through adulthood.
For the most part, Chip Deffaa’s script is rather linear and plods through Brice’s life journey methodically but is sufficient. Besides, the songs speak for themselves— “Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee”, “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home”, “You Made Me Love You”. In one interesting segment, Brice sings “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” early in the show as a little girl winning an amateur hour contest and then later as a seasoned performer in the twilight years. In typical TACT style, it’s a nice touch.
Fanny Brice worked with the greats, including Mr. Z himself of Zeigfield Follies fame, and her personal reflections of him and other theatre notables provide a behind the curtain peek at the ghosts of theater past, thus, the “ghost light” at the top of the show. That’s one of the many unexpected pleasures of the production. Watching a trouper like Covington go through the old song and dance to share the story of the original Funny Girl is another.
One Night with Fanny Brice
Written by Chip Deffaa
Produced by American Century Theater
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
ONE NIGHT WITH FANNY BRICE