Mead Hunter once said that if you want to be a genius in the theatre you should start a company and wait twenty years. When I heard that the Kent County Theatre Guild (KCTG) of Dover, Delaware was in the midst of their sixty-second season and just announced their sixty third – I wasn’t surprised. I just got done watching Funny Girl (with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Bob Merrill, and book by Isobel Lennart and directed on the Caesar Rodney High School stage by John Muller). I knew walking out of that theater that I was watching a group of theatre geniuses doing what they do best.
Anyone who likes a rags to riches story will love the story of Fanny Brice, on her rise from an un-notable life in New York’s Lower East Side to stardom. Fanny Brice is played by KCTG newcomer Candice Castro who plays a girl who can’t play the background, and is only really at home on the burlesque and vaudeville stage. She has a rapier sharp wit and a willingness to use it at any moment.
She is soon swept up in a romance by Nick Arnstein, (Jose Bernard). Nick is a gambler but she sees a gentle side in him that no one else does. Fanny drops a tour with the famous Florenz Ziegfeld and his Follies to run off with him and get married. Soon Fanny is faced with a difficult decision – does she choose stardom and a life onstage or a life offstage with a man who she supports – who resents how successful she is?
I found myself entranced by Castro’s energy and stage presence. From the moment she walked onstage I knew that I was about to be bowled over. Her energy gave everyone else in the cast a wonderful vibe to work with. Although Bernard didn’t have her high energy, I was so impressed when he sang for the very first time. He has the voice of a crooner and he and Castro match up nicely.
Of course these two stars could never bring such a great story to life without an excellent supporting cast. Most notable were Linda Hyler, who gave life to Fanny’s mother. Paul Janiga not only owned the stage as Mr. Ziegfeld, but painted the set the actors were performing on. Also notable was Sean Scanlon (Eddie Ryan), a high school senior who held his own with the veteran actors in the cast.
The rest of the ensemble is what makes community theatre unique. You have veteran actors working with relative stage newcomers, and high school students learning the craft. I was excited to see that ensemble actors Keysha Martinez and Bill Hartung were acting for first time in a very long time, because their children had brought them back to the theater. A good community theatre gets families involved and turns strangers into a theatre family. That’s what I saw here.
This bittersweet love story is directed by John Muller. I found his staging of the show very effective and fast-paced. It’s often very hard to bring group of random people together and turn them into a working team onstage. This is seen best in the opening scene where we see both Fanny getting ready for her number “If a Girl isn’t Pretty, while her mother and friends are playing poker. Muller’s direction is seamless here and as he directs and stages hard-hitting Fanny Brice solos to large Folly style dance numbers, to large crowds milling about on Henry Street, And speaking of musical numbers…
Funny Girl is also home to some very iconic music. Songs like “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” are so popular and have become such a big part of Broadway Americana, that many people can be heard humming them – many who have never seen the musical performed on the stage.
Music Director Irv Rothenberg and Choreographer Samantha Timlin did a fine job bringing these famous ‘earworms’ of this popular score to life onstage. Kudos to the band of 10 outstanding musicians who played Jule Styne’s music so well.
“Don’t Rain on my Parade” presents some vocal challenges and is not an easy song to perform, but Castro did an incredible job. When I saw Fanny stand up in that train station and sing those words to Eddie (the amiable Sean Scanlon), I started to get chills. By the end of the song when it’s just her all alone on the stage and while she was singing the final note – I was there with her, hanging on her every note. I’ve been humming the music non-stop since I got home. It’s going to be in my head all week.
Another number that showcased Samantha Timlin’s excellent choreography, and was also a personal favorite of mine, was “Cornet Man.” It’s not one of the standards that you may recognize when you think of Funny Girl but I was surprised at how wonderful and fun it was. Not only do you have Fanny Brice and the whole ensemble singing and dancing up and down stairs and around the stage – but they brought one of the Trumpet players from the band to play the Cornet Man in a blue blazer. Not only was I laughing and tapping my toes the whole time – but I was having a ball and I can tell that the rest of the audience was too. And since it was still in the First Act, I could only imagine how many more great numbers and dances were in store for me and the audience during the rest of the show.
The set was also a true community effort. Built by Dave Smith and Steve Caporiccio, with everyone else pitching in, they were able to build a multi-purpose set that was really a work horse for the entire production. On the front of the stage you might be getting an intimate look at Fanny Brice’s dressing room and then the curtains might open and then you were on the Follies stage with a tall staircase with Follies girls dancing up and down it. Then the curtain closes for one moment and then you see the denizens of Henry Street standing under the lamp post waiting for Fanny and Nick to arrive.
The staircase was the real showpiece of the whole set. Not only did it take up the entire back wall of the stage but with some simple redressing with different signs or banners it could take on a new life as any of the new Follies shows for the different numbers. It even did double-duty as the sprawling mansion that Nick introduces Fanny to as their new home. Double duty and economy was the name of the game here, and they played that game well.
Many of the beautiful costumes were rented from The Costumer, a New York company that John Muller says is where they get all of their “hard to find period specific costumes.” They also borrowed tuxedos from DuWane Sandlin, head of the music department at Caesar Rodney High School. The period-specific costumes brought me back to a Follies style. From a Follies Girl in a huge red headdress to an ensemble of lovely ladies dressed in the tackiest white wedding gowns for “His Love makes me Beautiful,” I was reminded of the decadence and the extravagance of the Follies and that era.
It’s also hard when your lead is changing costumes every second to keep everything fresh. The dress that was my favorite and stole the whole show for me was Fanny’s ruby red dress – outlined by a white fur coat. When you come and see the show – see if you can find it.
The Kent County Theatre Guild has been on the scene since 1953 and their many years of experience have served them well. For this production, they are performing Funny Girl at Caesar Rodney Memorial High School while their own theatre, The Patchwork Playhouse, is being renovated.
KCTG presented a solid and touching show (despite some technical problems with mics). Families and friends gathered together to bring this bittersweet tragicomedy to life.
If this is the kind of production that they can mount when they are away from ‘home,’ I can’t wait to see what happens in the next production when they are back on their home turf.
Don’t miss this entertaining Funny Girl. If you get to see it then you will be one of the “luckiest people in the world.”
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.
Funny Girl plays through Sunday, July 24, 2016, at the Kent County Theatre Guild performing at Caesar Rodney High School Auditorium – 239 Old North Road, in Camden, DE. For tickets, buy them at the box office. or purchase them online.