In our ignorance of popular culture of the early 20th c., we were not even sure who Fanny Brice was when we entered the theater. By the time we left two hours later we felt as if we not only knew her but that we really really liked her. As performed by the excellent actress/singer Patricia Dell (on the Voice Faculty at NYU Tisch School of the Arts) we got a glimpse into the life of a performer beloved by the American public-- and we witnessed how her private life was reflected in her art.
The early part of the show revealed her deep attachment to a charming father whose gambling, drinking and laziness were recreated by her long term attachment to Nicky Arnstein, a slick white-collar criminal and philanderer who went through her substantial earnings like a plague of locusts through a wheat field. Her tough-minded mother, proprietor of a saloon, broke up the family to get away from the unemployed father but was never able to talk Ms. Brice out of her self-destructive attachment to Mr. Arnstein who served a couple terms in prison.
All of these events affected Ms. Brice's performance. As a child she performed for her father who worshipped her and encouraged her talent. Ms. Dell, a woman well into middle-age, was able to convince as Fania the child. Significantly, in later life at the end of her career, she performed on the radio as a child --Baby Snooks, a character she created.
She started her career performing in amateur shows in Brooklyn, soon learning that men would take advantage of her. She moved on to burlesque and finally found a welcoming presence in Flo Ziegfield with whom she enjoyed a long association. As her relationship with Mr. Arnstein brought her increasing disappointment, her style shifted from comedy to torch songs.
The songs were of the period--Irving Berlin, Charles Warfield, Bob Carleton and Harry Carroll were some of the composers represented. Ms. Dell animated all the songs with heart and soul. "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" by Harry Carroll with lyrics by Joseph McCarthy was our personal favorite. No one would be surprised by this since the theme was "borrowed" from Chopin.
The piece was conceived, written and arranged by Chip Deffaa whose concept put Ms. Dell onstage as Ms. Brice's ghost, illuminated initially by only a ghost light. So there onstage we had a spirit sharing her life retrospectively--a most effective concept.
Musical director Kent Brown accompanied Ms. Dell on the piano. He walked the tightrope perfectly, always lending a distinct musicality to the proceedings without ever overwhelming Ms. Dell's voice.
Amie Brockway, Producing Artistic Director of The Open Eye Theater, based in Margaretville, NY, directed with a sure hand. Effective period costumes were designed by Nat Thomas with lighting by Erwin Karl.
That Ms. Dell held our attention for two hours is testament to the fine work of all concerned. It was a fascinating evening spent in the company of two talented ladies--Ms. Brice and Ms. Dell.
(c) meche kroop