Brooklyn actress brings Fanny Brice legend to San Jose

For actress Rachel Ulanet, it's a narrow tightrope: playing the part of one show business legend while playing down another. But to portray Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl," a role that's practically a wholly owned subsidiary of Barbra Streisand, it's a line Ulanet must walk.

She's not expecting any rain on her parade though, when she stars in a "Funny Girl" revival at the American Musical Theatre of San Jose. The show opens Friday, Sept. 12 for a 16-day run at the San Jose Center of the Performing Arts.

Compressing rehearsals into a brief three-week window is just part of the fun for the veteran performer. "This is a grand production," she says, "and an enormous house. I've never played such a large regional theater. The sets and costumes are spectacular."

Making things even easier, Ulanet has come to revere the woman she portrays, the great Jewish American comedian Fanny Brice (1891-1951). Brice's career spanned the tail end of vaudeville through the golden age of radio. Along the way, she became one of the best-known Jewish women of Broadway, right up there with Ethel Merman and Sophie Tucker.

Though she knew only a handful of Yiddish words, Brice became famous for her ethnic Jewish caricature, something that typecast her for years and stymied her quest to be a serious actress.

Brice's life on stage and off became the subject of "Funny Girl," which featured a sensational score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. The original Jerome Robbins production opened at the Winter Garden Theater in March 1964, with a cast headed by Streisand, who had by then rocketed to stardom as a Grammy-winning recording artist.

After a Broadway run of 1,348 performances, the show was a certified classic, and its star, thanks especially to her rendition of the showstopper "People," became an American icon. The 1968 film version earned Streisand her first Academy Award.

For Ulanet, who has loved "Funny Girl" since she herself was a girl, starring in this production is a big deal. "For every Jewish girl in this business, it's their dream to perform this role," says the Brooklyn-based actress.

She grew up in West Long Branch, N.J., listening to Streisand, and a lot more. Her father, an anesthesiologist and closet musician, turned his daughter on to jazz at a young age ("I was listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Thelonious Monk at age 5"). Her mother, a folkie, introduced her to James Taylor and Peter, Paul and Mary.

After seeing both "The Nutcracker" and "The Wiz" as a child, Ulanet was smitten by the stage, but seeing "A Chorus Line" when she was 11 sealed the deal. She went on to attend the famed Stage Door Manor camp in the Catskills, was the drama department star in high school and studied acting and voice at Carnegie-Mellon and Barnard College.

Her credits include Broadway, off-Broadway and regional theater productions of "Les Miserables," "King David," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Anne Frank and Me," "Jane Eyre" and "Crossing Delancey." If her resume seems top-heavy with Jewish roles, there's good reason.

"I went to Hebrew school, had a bat mitzvah and grew up in a Reform congregation," says Ulanet. "Being Jewish makes you stand out in this business. Fanny Brice capitalized on that, with her elastic face and wicked sense of humor. She was actually a handsome woman but by the standard of her day, she was a bit of a mieskeit [ugly person]."

With opening night approaching, Ulanet is experiencing that adrenaline rush all actors live for.

"Through all the trials and tribulations of this crazy business, there's a wonderful gift thrown in," she says. "It's not like an artist in a studio painting in solitary fashion, with other people having their own experience later. In acting, you are the paintbrush and canvas laid out before everyone to see."

Is she concerned about taking on a role so closely identified with one of the most popular performers in American history? Not at all.

Says Ulanet: "Once I perused the script and understood context, I was able to bring my own thing to it."

After the production wraps, Ulanet heads back to Brooklyn, where she lives with her husband. After 10 years of touring and living the "gypsy" life, she's starting to think about maybe settling down. But this might only be a passing fancy. As Brice sings in the show: "Get ready for me life, 'cause I'm a comer/ I simply gotta march, my heart's a drummer…"

"Funny Girl" presented by the American Musical Theater of San Jose and the San Jose Center of the Performing Arts runs Friday, Sept. 12 through Sunday, Sept. 28 at 225 Almaden Blvd. At 8 p.m. Sept. 12, 13, 16-20 and 24-27; 2 p.m. Sept. 20, 24 and 27; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sept. 14 and 21; and 1 p.m. Sept. 28. Tickets: $75.50-$44.50. Information: (408) 453-7108 or www.amtsj.org

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.