She didn’t realize it when she won the lead role of Fanny Brice in the Gallery Players’ new production of “Funny Girl,” but Paula Shtein now feels like she found a role model.
Shtein, 22, a former Gahanna resident and Lincoln High School graduate, got her first taste of performing portraying Jeannie the Giraffe when Gallery Players presented “Noah’s Ark” more than a decade ago. After that, she began appearing regularly in musical theater performances all over Central Ohio. While attending Capital University’s Conservatory of Music, Shtein appeared in local productions of “Fiddler on the Roof” with Gallery Players and Weathervane Playhouse’s presentation of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
According to Shtein, Fanny Brice is “a strong character with so much in life in her. She doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, and I find that incredibly empowering. I’m having a wonderful time learning about and from Fanny Brice.”
For example, Shtein said she identifies with Brice’s universal longing to be loved and approved of. She is also fascinated by the fact that despite her immense talent and professional success, Brice was emotionally vulnerable.
Barbra Streisand famously transitioned from appearing as vaudeville superstar Fanny Brice on Broadway to portraying her in the movie adaptation of “Funny Girl,” winning the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1968 for that performance, tying with Katharine Hepburn.
Gallery Players is the longest running community theater in the Midwest, according to the Columbus Jewish Community Center, and aims to highlight the Jewish experience and Jewish playwrights. It will present “Funny Girl” from Dec. 8 to Dec. 23 at the JCC in Columbus.
As a young woman embarking on a musical theater career in New York City, Shtein said she sees great parallels between her life and the beginnings of Brice’s professional pursuits.
“I have a lot in common with her and can see a lot of Fanny’s wants and needs within myself, as well,” she said. “So, I’m excited to bring that humanity to her.”
For Keely Kurtas-Chapman, “Funny Girl” represents not only a return to Gallery Players as director, it marks the second time she has worked with Shtein on a production there. She cast her in “Bad Jews” in 2014.
From that experience, Kurtas-Chapman said she knew Shtein was a talented singer she enjoys working with.
“It is also interesting to have an actress come back from New York to play this role,” she said.
Kurtas-Chapman said she has fond memories seeing “Funny Girl” performed on stage when she was young. It was the second “Broadway-style” show she ever saw, and the joy and thrill she felt sitting in the audience have stuck with her. In Kurtas-Chapman’s mind, Brice was a champion of female empowerment – a theme that resonates with her.
Along with Shtein, 27 others comprise the Funny Girl cast. Among them are two longtime Bexley performers, Fred Luper and Susan Gellman.
“I like this cast because it is so community oriented” Kurtas-Chapman said. “Some performers are JCC members and others are members of the Columbus theater community. That really comes through when the entire cast performs ‘Henry Street,’ a song that celebrates Fanny.”
While Brice grew up in the shadows of Broadway and Shtein was raised in the suburbs of Columbus, their mutual love of performing musical theater drew them both to Broadway, exactly where Shtein will return once “Funny Girl” closes.
When she heads back to The Big Apple and the “audition grind,” as she put it, Shtein said she will be accompanied by a renewed sense of energy gleaned by playing Brice.
“I will continue to audition and take classes and workshops to grow as an actor and performer,” she said. “NYC is the best place for that.”
-Tami Kamin Meyer -Columbus Jewish News