When it comes to Funny Girl, everyone wants to talk about Lea Michele. Or maybe Beanie Feldstein. Occasionally understudy Julie Benko enters the conversation. This is understandable, as the drama around the casting of Fanny Brice has been some of the best Broadway gossip since the Hamilton cast fought for profit-sharing. Unfortunately, the casting mishegoss has overshadowed the very important fact that Ramin Karimloo, who plays Nick Arnstein, is a star.
Funny Girl, as a musical, has never worked — even with Barbra. It’s paced poorly, several of the songs are clunkers, and it falls into the trap that many biographical works do, which is that most people (even the famous ones) live dramatically inert lives. In the first act, the only thing that could generously be described as conflict comes at the very end, when Nick decides to go to Monte Carlo instead of continuing to accompany Fanny on tour. Even then, he isn’t breaking up with her, he’s just leaving for a couple weeks. She follows him anyway.
This is a show that serves more as a showcase for talent than as a satisfying piece of theater. Michele is wonderful as Fanny, her voice strong and clear as she belts her face off, but if you watched Glee you have seen her sing many of these songs before. If you’re going to pay Broadway prices to see a flawed show, do it for Karimloo.
Already a star to dyed-in-the-wool musical theater fans for his turns in Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera, Karimloo should be at least as famous as Aaron Tveit. The ingredients are all there: he has a beautiful voice, a great sense for when to ham it up and when to play it straight, and he is so handsome that when he appeared shirtless at the top of act two several people in my audience gasped. The only thing working against him is that Broadway is addicted to young tenors, and Karimloo has the silky baritone of a grown man.
In Funny Girl, Karimloo secretly has the best role. Nick is the only person in the show who gets to make choices that affect the plot. He is the one who gets Fanny a well-paying job as a young talent, he is the one who initiates their romantic relationship, he is responsible for blowing all of Fanny’s money on building a casino, and when — spoiler alert — their relationship ends, it’s him who initiates the breakup. He is the person who pushes the plot forward, whereas this all just happens to Fanny, whose one note throughout the show is to persevere. Karimloo eats all of this up and licks the plate clean.
That he was not nominated for a Tony is somewhat of a crime, especially considering that he has been delivering this good of a performance throughout a shitstorm of a production. In Jesse Green’s initial pan of the show, he noted that Karimloo “sings beautifully and, to the extent the new book tries to beef up the role, he’s got the beef to do it.” It’s one of the only nice things Green had to say.
Exiting Funny Girl after curtain call, you will hear a lot of people saying, “Lea is amazing,” and she certainly is. But you will also hear a few people say, “And he was fantastic.” He is Karimloo, and those people are correct. Karimlooinators, let’s all light a candle and say a prayer that his next show will garner him the respect he deserves.