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The Funny Girl of Our Times

"From a young age she knew she was slightly different. And that's where she identifies strongly with the character she is going to play."

04/04/2017 03:55 SAST
Daniel Rutland
Ashleigh Harvey as Fanny Brice.

Eric Abraham and the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town present a brand new production of "Funny Girl – The Musical." This semi-biographical musical, based on the life and career of Broadway star, film actress and comedienne Fanny Brice features some of the most iconic songs in film and theatre history, including "People" and "Don't Rain On My Parade." It tells the bitter-sweet story of Fanny Brice whose vocal talents and comedic ability see her rise from a music hall singer to Broadway star, and her tempestuous relationship with gambler Nick Arnstein.

I spoke to our very own funny girl Ashleigh Harvey:

Daniel Rutland

Actor/singer Ashleigh Harvey was chasing a dream and joyously, she's pinned it down.

Ever since the age of 16, Fanny Brice from "Funny Girl" was someone she knew she could get stuck into. Ashleigh is one of those fortunate few who has many skills she has honed – particularly acting and singing.

It's been a long time coming, ever since those early days of her career when she was selected as one of the International Shakespeare Fellowship winners and had a chance to study at London's legendary Globe Theatre.

But things haven't been easy in the theatre world with young actors having to explore a much wider landscape than they might have expected. Ashleigh was game and in the past few years she has created her own work (from solo singing shows to musicals to producing and performing in plays), all to gain experience and growth as an arts practitioner.

Her last stint was also one she nourished and pitched herself, performing with Janna Ramos Violante in "Pests",a raw exploration of two co-dependent siblings battling their addictions and familial dependencies, directed by Fiona Ramsay.

Speaking to her right at the start of rehearsals for "Funny Girl", she was surprised by the calmness she felt. That first day's entrance as the lead of a big show, something she had trepidations about, was behind her and she could get on with the work which is what Ashleigh is all about. "I feel the responsibility," she says but she also feels ready to tackle this one.

"It's a love story," she says of "Funny Girl", "a story of a girl with dreams," very similar to those with which a young Ashleigh began her journey. But it's also about the world of stage, the way people live, are seen and treated as celebrities. "Today's kids often just want the fame and the celebrity, it's not about the work and the career," she says. And that is where this one links so deftly into the contemporary world. That's all it is about it seems, these days. It's what you represent not what you achieve, that matters.

She has walked the walk and knows how hard it is to battle for those dreams. But she is also reaping the rewards of having done that sometimes tortuous yet robust route. "It's the right time for me now," says Ashleigh who had to do a lot of growing up quite publicly because of her work on stage.

From a young age she knew she was slightly different. And that's where she identifies strongly with the character she is going to play. Of course it takes a while for people who don't conform on every level to understand that it is exactly their individuality that will get them through.

Ashleigh knows she is in safe hands with director Matthew Wild who recently did the fantastic West Side Story for The Fugard Theatre and as a bonus, Charl-Johan Lingenvelder as musical director, a man who is completely committed to introducing the contemporary in a subtle way that simply makes sense, as well as choreographer Louisa Talbot who also allows the dancing to tap into today's rhythms.

Daniel Rutland

The young star is also surrounded by a clutch of old-timers including Kate Normington as Mrs Brice, Diane Wilson (Mrs Strakoosh) Michele Maxwell (Mrs Meeker) and Mike Huff (Florenz Ziegfield) with the appealing Clyde Bearning as her leading man. With designer Birrie le Roux to dress her, it's all systems go for Ashleigh.

For the moment, she is working hard to get to grips with the character of Fanny. She knows it is a role that has been defined by Barbra Streisand but these are different times and a different continent and for Ashleigh and her director, it is all about serving the story.

As an actor, that's what she believes and clings to and that where her stage craft is so astonishing. This is someone who from a young age had Shakespeare woven into her email address as a constant reminder of what her world represented and meant to her. She's been open and keen to learn and when she wasn't on stage, she was often in the audience watching her peers work. "There's a lot of myself in this quirky young girl," she says about Fanny. "I identify strongly with who she is." She's also grateful for the life experience she has picked up along the way and feels that everything will contribute to the complete performance which is where she's pitching at.

Ashleigh knows that she has chosen a career that is probably at its most precarious in our world today. And living in a country where for so many, their daily struggle is survival, the arts are not the priority it should be. But she's driven, this is her place and her only survival.

"Working with these people has been a very organic process," says Ashleigh who is especially excited about the collaboration on "Funny Girl." And together with the established cast, she's completely awed by the talent and skills of the younger members of the cast. "I'm not really a dancer but I'm getting there," she says of her particular moves in this nostalgic musical, "but watching these youngsters, they're simply brilliant."

That's who she is, willing to get her hands dirty to make it work, yet always taking time to give others their due. This is a cutthroat world, but for Ashleigh, this is her happy place and given the interior world of Fanny Brice and the way it impacts on who she is, she is taking this on with the biggest of smiles.

She's determined to be a funny girl of the new millennium!

  • "Funny Girl" runs at Cape Town's Fugard Theatre from April 18 with performances from Tuesdays to Fridays at 8pm and on Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm. Tickets, ranging from R130 to R350 are available through 021 461 4554, Computicket and 0861 9158 000. Here's crossing fingers for a later Gauteng run .
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