For a few days in July, the legendary Borscht Belt musical comedian and Ziegfeld Follies superstar Fanny Brice returns to the Catskills -- at least in spirit.
Actress and singer Patricia Dell stars in the upcoming one-woman show “One Night With Fanny Brice,” by playwright Chip Deffaa, staged by Margaretville's Open Eye Theater. In her role as Brice, Dell takes on the indomitable persona of the first female star of the Jewish entertainment circuit, and breathes fresh life into musical classics nearly a century old.
“‘Wow’ was my reaction reading the script,” said Dell. “My only exposure to her was the movie, ‘Funny Girl,’ starring Barbra Streisand. There’s a lot more to her.”
The story begins in Brice's Brooklyn childhood, when nine-year-old Fania Borach first sang for her father in Brooklyn, and follows the rising star's career as she sang for coins at amateur shows around New York, appeared on the radio as Baby Snooks, and went on to sing and dance in burlesque. It touches on her parents’ relationship, the men in her life – she was married three times, including to the notorious professional gambler Nicky Arnstein – and her overwhelming love of theater.
“Being on stage was the best thing she could do in her life,” said Dell, whose own musical theater career includes roles in “Cabaret,” “Mame” and “The King and I.”
“Acting in the play is a challenge,” she said, noting that she also portrays multiple characters throughout Brice’s life. “Daunting. You get Fanny Brice in all her different characters and moods, and have to sing and dance too.”
Bringing the play to The Open Eye is the realization of a dream for director Amie Brockway. The vaudeville era depicted in "One Night" is a vanishing piece of cultural history, Brockway said.
“It’s important to get a taste of vaudeville and the entertainment of the era. Few people are alive who experienced it first-hand,” Brockway said.
The songs in the show include many popular hits from the late nineteen-teens and twenties, said musical director Kent Brown, including “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and “You Made Me Love You.”
“She was known for her torch songs, which no one was doing at the time,” said Brown. “She would stand perfectly still and be able to move people without doing anything. That was very new at the time.”
The legendary showgirl often performed in the Catskills, said Brockway.
“Fanny Brice was happiest here. She performed at the Roxbury Hotel,” she said.
Brice also did three movies before she died in 1951, at the age of 59.
“I was really drawn to her,” said Dell. “I totally got her, her sense of humor, her choice in men. She was really smart. She was very elegant. Her mom made sure of it.”
"One Night With Fanny Brice" runs July 10-13 and 18-20 at the Open Eye Theater, 960 Main Street, Margaretville. Shows run at 7 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with matinees at 3 p.m. on Sundays. Admission $18; $15 seniors; $10 youth (25 and under). Patrons who dine at the Binnekill Square or Summerfield's before the show can receive vouchers for premium reserved seats. For more information, call 845-586-1660 or visit the Open Eye Theater's website.