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Familiar Follies

Recognizable music, under fine direction, suits this production of 'Funny Girl.'

March 30, 2000|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It all started when producer Ray Stark decided that his mother-in-law's life story might make an interesting show. When he couldn't interest a film studio, he headed for Broadway.

Stark's mother-in-law was a singer and comedian named Fanny Brice, who enjoyed a lengthy career on stage and later on the radio, although her movies and records didn't really connect. She died in 1951 and was largely forgotten by the time "Funny Girl" opened 13 years later.

No matter: "Funny Girl" had a successful Broadway run, at least one major hit song--"People"--and a virtually unknown leading actress who became a star: Barbra Streisand.

It's now playing--without Streisand--at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, in a Cabrillo Music Theater production.

The play focuses on Brice's rise to fame in the Ziegfeld Follies and her ill-fated marriage to gambler Nicky Arnstein.

Instead of using any of the songs Brice made famous--"My Man" and "Second-Hand Rose" for instance, both of which made the movie--Stark commissioned an original score by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill. One game that can be played during lulls in "Funny Girl," in fact, is spotting songs that emulate numbers in Styne's earlier success, "Gypsy."

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Under Lewis Wilkenfeld's direction, Stephanie Block plays Brice pretty much as Streisand did, which is probably fine for a production like this, whose audience is more likely looking for something familiar than original. That said, she does a fine job of it, exhibiting a good deal of magnetism in her own right.

The second leads are Matthew Ashford as Arnstein and Randy Hills as Eddie Ryan, her teacher, pianist and confidant.

There's a large ensemble, which looks and sounds good, particularly in the faux-Ziegfeld production numbers choreographed by John Charron.

The book, by Isobel Lennart, is slightly weak and rather familiar, but the songs also include "The Music That Makes Me Dance," "Don't Rain on My Parade" and "Cornet Man." And it isn't often done, so this is a relatively rare opportunity to see "Funny Girl" as it was conceived, before it became a hit movie.

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The best parts of "Funny Girl" are the singing and dancing, and helping to make those happen is musical director Darryl Archbald, who leads the orchestra.

The 32-year-old musician is a familiar figure in local orchestra pits--including recent productions of "Ain't Misbehavin' " and "Gypsy" at the Civic Arts Plaza, and as pianist or conductor for several years' worth of Moorpark College musical productions.

All the while, Archibald was working as musical director for several professional productions in Los Angeles, where he lives.

"My theory was that you just do everything that comes along, to get the experience and repertoire," he said during a chat over the weekend. "I'd book myself crazy--sometimes I'd have something in Long Beach or San Diego and have to drive to Moorpark and then back the next morning."

It's paid off. Last year, Archibald was named musical director for Utah Musical Theater, a summer-season professional enterprise.

Not long ago, Archibald attended the Midwest Theater Auditions in St. Louis.

The event brings actors from all over the country in contact with theater companies--such as the Utah group--to cast upcoming productions.

"I was appalled that colleges were sending out these kids who weren't really prepared," he said.

"They might be talented, but they aren't getting the kind of training they need to be competitive. [Moorpark College instructor] Marilyn [Anderson] really tries to give her students practical experience. . . . I saw students from hundreds of colleges around the United States, and they didn't even know how to put together a resume."

As for Archibald, he doesn't have time to update his: He's already booked through the end of this year and has his agent lining up dates for next year.

DETAILS

"Funny Girl" concludes Sunday at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza auditorium, 2100 Thousand Oaks Boulevard in Thousand Oaks. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets range from $14 to $32 and are available from the Civic Arts Plaza box office (449-2787) or through Ticketmaster at 583-8700. For groups of 12 or more, call Debbie Pizzano at 497-8616.

Todd Everett can be reached at teverett@concentric.net.

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