PARIS — The words are all in French, and they are all raves. Translated into English, they sound like this: “stunning,” “dazzling,” “radiant,” “lyrical,” “phenomenal,” “powerful,” “moving,” “bubbly,” “funny,” “a delight,” “a role that fits her like a glove,” a performance that “can without fading hold comparison with Barbra Streisand.”
These reviews praise Christina Bianco, the New York actor starring in Paris as Fanny Brice — the role Streisand made famous on Broadway and in Hollywood — in the Théâtre Marigny production of Funny Girl.
“I’m so over the moon,” Bianco says. “I can’t believe I get to do this. Nothing could have prepared us for the response the show has been getting. Every audience. The reviews have been so kind. It’s such a thrill to get to sink my teeth into this part, which so few people get to do. And to do it with this incredible London West End cast.”
The 1964 Jule Styne-Bob Merrill-Isobel Lennart musical traces Brice from Manhattan’s Lower East Side to the Ziegfeld Follies to her failed marriage with the gambler and conman Nicky Arnstein. Fifty-five years after opening at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway, it is finally having its Paris premiere, courtesy of Jean-Luc Choplin, Théâtre Marigny’s director general. The musical, directed by Stephen Mear and performed in English with French surtitles, runs through March 7 and features such Broadway—now Streisand—classics as “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” It has never had a Broadway revival.
A native (Suffern) New Yorker and an alumna of the Tisch School of the Arts in New York City, Bianco has an impressive New York résumé. Her Off-Broadway credits include Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab, Newsical, and her one-woman show, Application Pending. She received a Drama Desk nomination as outstanding featured actress in a musical for her Forbidden Broadway gig, and a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Solo Performance for Application Pending.
She has also performed in Forbidden Broadway in London, and toured Britain in a second one-woman show, Me, Myself and Everyone Else. Bianco became a YouTube phenomenon with her imitations of stars like Lady Gaga, Adele, Liza Minnelli...and Streisand. In 2013, in one YouTube song, “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” she imitated 19 singers and racked up more than seven million views.
Bianco says that when she was offered the role of Fanny Brice, she was thrilled. “Who would not want to play one of the most iconic roles in musical theatre history?” she says. “For so many reasons, the role is incredible. And this is nothing about Barbra Streisand and Fanny Brice being two incredible people. It’s because it’s one of the beautiful roles. The show covers so much of her life. So you have the gift of playing eight to 10 years of the same character. It’s challenging, but that’s so exciting for an actor. You get to start younger, get older, and have an incredible arc, and a journey.”
Because Fanny Brice performs, “it’s a show within a show,” says Bianco, “so you get to sing these presentational, big broad songs and these very small, intimate numbers as well. And then there’s the score — these great songs, ‘People,’ ‘I’m the Greatest Star,’ ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade,’ that I grew up singing.
“When you add the fact that it’s Barbra Streisand’s career-making or star-making moment, for me, a New Yorker, who grew up listening to Barbra Streisand — I came out of the womb knowing every lyric to her albums.”
But because of all this, she says, “part of me was completely terrified. I think the reason the show isn’t done very often is because nobody wants to follow Barbra Streisand, and nobody wants to be compared to Barbra Streisand. But you can’t be, because there’s only one Barbra—says somebody who does an impression of her. But the thing is, I do it in such a way where nobody would ever say that I didn’t love her. They can tell that I love her.”
Well known for her impression, she was trying very hard, beginning with the audition, to make the role her own and not do a Streisand imitation. “Sometimes she does brilliant things,” Bianco says. “You think that was a great choice. But you still can’t do it. You have to find a way to make it your own. So it’s exciting.”
Still, she never expected the raves she’s received. “I remember telling my husband I’m really scared that no matter what I do, people are going to say, well, no one can be Streisand, so since you can’t have Streisand, she was all right. Or, if I’m not doing a Barbra Streisand impression at all, people would still say, ‘Well, clearly she was just impersonating Barbra Streisand,’” Bianco says. “I was just so nervous because not only did she do it on Broadway, she did it on film.”
Streisand won an Oscar for the role, too. But Bianco felt the movie could serve in the production’s favor—since it’s different from the film—and break expectations from the get-go.
She says she has great admiration for Fanny Brice. “I still to this day don’t think Fanny Brice gets enough credit,” she says. “She genuinely paved the way for so many not just comedic actresses but incredible singers and vocalists. People forget what a gorgeous torch song singer she was.”
Brice could belt a song like ‘My Man’ and also play a comic character like Baby Snooks, Bianco says. “Those two things typically don’t go together. But she was like a Barbra Streisand, like a Bette Middler, like all these great women who are so funny and so different and don’t conform. They’re not cookie cutter. They don’t necessarily fit in all the boxes we’re told we have to fit in. Fanny Brice paved the way for that.”
Bianco identifies. “I’m always told I’m not the right type and don’t fit in. And need to be taller. Or prettier. Or gain weight. Or lose weight. We’ve all got that—particularly in the performing arts, we’ve all got the insecurity within us. In this business we have to let it roll off our backs. When somebody says you’re wrong, you’re not good enough, you're not tall enough, you’re just not right. We don’t know what to do with you, you’re a little bit funny looking, Christina, you’re pretty but you’re not that pretty, we certainly can’t cast you in this show. There are only so many times you can let that roll off your back. It definitely gets to you.
“And I can’t tell you how much I love Fanny Brice—the real Fanny Brice. Reading about her, about how she was so brazen and so gutsy,” she says. “Every night I just hope that I get a little more like Fanny Brice in real life.”
So would she like to do this role on Broadway? She laughs. “Yes,” she says. “Of course I would.
“I know that this role and a Broadway revival of Funny Girl have been talked about for so many years. The names that have been tossed around — Lauren Ambrose, Lady Gaga, Idina Menzel, Jessie Mueller — all these great award-winning stars that could play this part. I would never in my wildest dreams imagine that I would get to do it on Broadway. But I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would get to play the part in general. And here I am doing it in Paris.”