'Funny Girl' at Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater: Maya Dagan Is the Embodiment of Fanny Brice

Maya Dagan dives into the lead role of ‘Funny Girl’ as if it had been written just for her, and reminds us of what a marvelous comedienne she is.

Maya Dagan and the chorus in the Cameri production of 'Funny Girl.'
Daniel Kaminsky

A lot of people tend to turn up their noses at a certain custom of Israeli repertory theaters: putting on at least one musical per season, usually a recent big hit in London or New York, to provide entertainment for the public and more of a living for the theater staff. I actually like this practice, especially if done well and cast properly, and such is the case with the Cameri production of “Funny Girl,” starring Maya Dagan. This particular musical, with music and lyrics by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, may not be a masterpiece of the form, but it could be considered part of the “Jewish repertory,” since it centers on the Jewish singer-comedienne-actress of a century ago, Fanny Brice, played on Broadway and on film by another Jewish singer-comedienne-actress, Barbra Streisand.

With all due respect to the other parts of the play, the main question about the new production is: How does this Funny Girl stack up? The answer is clear from practically the first moment Maya Dagan appears on stage: She is indeed the greatest star, as Fanny sings about herself. And she is a singer who really knows how to belt out a song, from deep in the throat and the heart (which may be aching or laughing, depending on the song). She also dances and – most importantly here – is a superb comedienne, with fantastic timing and a self-irony that puts everything in its proper place. Anyone who saw Dagan perform back in the Beit Zvi acting school, nearly 20 years ago, would have noted all these qualities, and one more, which Fanny Brice had as well, according to the musical, at least: the drive to be center-stage, on her conditions. Dagan truly sinks her teeth into this role, which seems like it was written just for her.

Let them shine

She’s no Streisand (no one else is), but when she sings the song “Yahad” (“Together,” the Hebrew version of “People” as translated by Dori Parnes), she makes it her own. As the song title implies, Dagan is not alone on stage. The dark charm that Omar Sharif brought to the 1968 movie version is supplied here by Amos Tamam, who looks marvelous and sings, acts and moves very well. Compared to his co-star, I found Tamam just slightly lacking in a couple of ways – you could feel his lack of experience in performing musical comedy, and he fell a bit short of her in terms of star quality as well. It’s not enough for an actor to possess that; he or she has to know how to use it consciously and project it from the stage. Dagan does. Tamam is not quite there yet, but I think he will learn.

The musical is set mostly on the American music hall stage, and Bambi Friedman’s effective but not overly imaginative set design contains many allusions to the Ziegfeld Follies of the era. The musical numbers are well done (Tal Balchrovich is the musical director, and the energetic and varied choreography is by Oz Morag). The chorus is highly skilled, and there are a good number of amusing supporting roles: Shlomo Vishinksy, who goes from playing Doc in “West Side Story” to Brice’s first employer here; Orna Rothberg as Brice’s mother and Amit Rice as Eddie, her dancer friend. Director Tzedi Tzarfati loves this material and knows how to handle it – to make the scenes flow, build up to the dramatic climaxes, and let the stars shine.

There is plenty more to be said about how things have changed concerning sex and gender since the days when a girl couldn’t succeed on stage if she wasn’t pretty. (Brice, Streisand and Dagan prove it is possible, for each is pretty in her own way.) This is also a play about how hard it is to create true equality in a marriage; but then, why rain on the parade of a great star?

The Cameri Theater presents “Funny Girl” by Jule Styne (music), Bob Merrill (lyrics) and Isobel Lennart. Hebrew version: Dori Parnes; directed by Tzedi Tzarfati; musical director: Tal Balchrovich; choreography: Oz Morag; set design: Bambi Friedman; costume design: Moni Madnik; lighting design: Keren Garnek