One of the first Jewish women to break — or crash — into vaudeville, Fanny Brice paved the way for female comics from Lucille Ball to Gilda Radner. Fans of Brice will have a rare opportunity this weekend to hear four top-notch singers pay tribute to her in a mixture of solos and duets, backed by a six-piece band. “Ziegfeld Girl: The Many Faces of Fanny Brice” runs for just five performances at the 92nd Street Y, with such standards as “Second Hand Rose” and “My Man” on the program.
Ted Sperling, who organized the program and who will provide commentary between the numbers, served as music director for the 2008 Broadway revival of “South Pacific” and won a Tony Award for his orchestrations for “The Light in the Piazza” in 2005. All four of the performers — Carpathia Jenkins, Leslie Kritzer, Faith Prince and Clarke Thorell — are Broadway veterans, and Kritzer played Brice in a 2001 revival of “Funny Girl,” the musical based on Brice, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey.
By dint of her “talent and chutzpah,” Sperling told The Jewish Week, Brice became one of the highest paid entertainers of her day, even though she rarely starred in a play or musical. “She created a comic persona that could flip on a dime — and tear your heart out with a torch song.”
Brice, who started out by doing routines in an African-American dialect, soon gravitated toward Yiddish dialect comedy, even though she had not grown up speaking the immigrant Jewish language. In her songs and sketches, she redefined the stereotypical image of the Jewish mother, investing her portrayals with pathos and emotional truth despite a trademark gawkiness and self-deprecating style.
In an era in which the culture of celebrity was getting under way, Brice also had a knack for self-promotion. Her nose job, Sperling noted, was covered extensively in the press, and she timed her singing of “My Man” to coincide with her very public divorce from swindler Nicky Arnstein.
The 1968 film version of “Funny Girl,” starring Barbra Streisand, along with its 1975 sequel, “Funny Lady,” brought Brice to a new generation of audiences; more recently, an episode of “Glee” showed Lea Michele’s character, Rachel Berry, opening on Broadway in “Funny Girl.” The cabaret evening, Sperling hopes, will still bring the audience to a “new appreciation” of this Jewish comedy pioneer, whose talent was “singular” and who combined, in his words, “eccentricity with heart.”
“Ziegfeld Girl: The Many Faces of Fanny Brice” runs this Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Monday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at the 92nd Street Y. For tickets, $52, call the Y at (212) 415-5500 or visit www. 92Y.org/lyrics.