Club Review: Josephine Sanges’s “The Funny Girl in Me”
In cabaret, the overall quality of a performer is often much more important than the beauty of a voice—or even the skill of a vocalist; I’ve gradually been won over to the side of acting choices. But Josephine Sanges’s sound stopped me in my tracks. She has the bright ping-ring quality of Streisand in her prime, with harmonics so in-tune that it made my eyeballs sparkle. That last part is not a technical description, but I’ve never been in the presence of a voice like that.
“The Funny Girl in Me,” Sanges’s latest offering at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, is a Fanny Brice show where she weaves her own coming of age as a performer through parts of Brice’s story, with a strong pass through the version of it told through Funny Girl. Amusingly, Sanges’s mentorship for all things Fanny and Barbra were in the most Catholic-possible environments, and director Jeff Harnar managed to highlight the humor of that while respecting the importance of the Jewish heritage in Brice’s life and work.
We heard just the right amount from Brice’s alter-ego, Baby Snooks, who got her own show on CBS radio in 1944—Sanges popped up in-character for a few minutes until pianist and musical director John M. Cook, filling in for the slightly cranky father figure, convinced her to wrap it up. A handful of comic numbers included “Oh How I Hate That Fella Nathan” (Lew Brown, Albert Von Tilzer) and “Quainty Dainty Me” (Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby), where Sanges brought a Yiddish accent and a light comedic touch.
Well-chosen Brice hits like “My Man” (Maurice Yvain, Channing Pollock) and “I’ve Got A Feeling I’m Falling” (Fats Waller, Harry Link, Billy Rose) showed another side of Sanges’s vocal skill: she captured that 1920s-’30s bounce; evoked, but didn’t impersonate, the voice placement of those early “girl singers”; and came out swinging. “I’d Rather Be Blue Over You” (Fred Fisher, Billy Rose) is a bit of a stylistic crossover—it’s a 1920s tune but was included in Funny Girl, so we’ve heard more recent versions. Sanges somehow managed to seamlessly blend both styles, and the easy bounce found its way into a showstopping contemporary belt. In a time when we have to wade through so many singers pressured to have a money note, hearing Josephine Sanges light up somewhere close to the highest pitch a belter can typically get to—and hear her voice become even more beautiful, more supported, more in tune, and even more full of ease and joy—was pretty astounding.
“More Than You Know” (Vincent Youmans, Billy Rose, Edward Eliscu) was a knockout. Sanges sang with effortless rhythm and shining vocal quality, and Cook’s attentive phrasing was right in the pocket with her.
There’s something about Sanges’s confident, yet modest stage presentation that I appreciated: she was there to do the work, and she handled the spectacular instrument she’s developed with grace. That was part of the authenticity of how she performed, not to be spackled over with sparkles. But there was a slight disconnect with her look, as if she didn’t want to pull undue focus. On stage, though, she needed something to visually distinguish her as a performer from who she is in everyday life. I say that purely because her work is at such a high level, and I’d love to see her find out what her own unique star quality looks like, because she’s nailed what it sounds like.
Cook’s original song by “Touching Magic” towards the end of the evening was a lovely addition—taking a cue from the motivational quality of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” (Bob Merrill, Jule Styne) which they also did very well. The song was a confidence-boosting anthem with perceptive lyrics about courage and growth, including:
“Funny all the doubts we carry thinking fate will do its worst / Funny all the dreams we bury that go unrehearsed.”
Sanges performed it with a very personal connection, as if she were at home convincing herself that it’s worth it to keep getting out there and taking the risk of performing. And, luckily for us, it worked.
Presented at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, May 6, 18, July 27, September 14, 2022.
About the Author
From Canada, Penelope Thomas came to NY to study dance with Merce Cunningham; then through a series of fortunate and unfortunate events, she wound up back in singing and acting. Credits include lead vocals with FauveMuseum on two albums and live at Symphony Space, singing back-up for Bistro Awards director Shellen Lubin at the Metropolitan Room, reading poet Ann Carson’s work at the Whitney, and touring North America and Europe with Mikel Rouse’s The End of Cinematics. In Toronto, she studied piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music and cello with the Claude Watson School for the Arts, and in New York she studied music theory with Mark Wade. She's taught in the New School’s Sweat musical theatre intensive and taught dance in public schools and conservatories.