MONTREAL — Gabi Epstein has been dancing around the edges of Fanny Brice for almost a decade.
A year after she graduated in 2005 from McGill University’s faculty of music in classical voice, she tried out her show-tune pipes in a one-woman musical, Make ‘em Laugh, about the life of Brice.
At the time, Smile Theatre toured it in Ontario with a stop in Montreal. Five years later, she was cast as Brice in To Life, a revue paying tribute to Jewish vaudevillians, staged by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre (HGJT) in Toronto.
The third embodiment of Brice was two years ago when the HGJT had her play the role in a fundraising concert version of Funny Girl.
“It was great to have those experiences learning about Fanny Brice,” says the performer.
This time, at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts from Oct. 11- Nov. 1, Epstein is at the epicentre of the full-staged version with a visionary director’s touch that Peter Hinton brings to his productions.
“Funny Girl is rarely done because it calls for a huge cast and the re-creation of the lavish Ziegfeld Follies and Henry Street neighbourhood. Peter Hinton is not trying to do a scaled-down version but its own new thing, keeping the idea of the show as a memory piece based in Brice’s dressing room,” says Epstein.
“The ensemble is onstage most of the time like a Greek chorus. Since it’s a cast of only 18 [compared to the original of almost 50], a lot of people are playing multiple parts and their faces inspire all of the people in her memory.”
The story still follows vaudevillian Brice through her career climb and her rocky relationship with her gorgeous gambler Nicky Arnstein.
Costumes remain dazzling in the hands of designer Michael Gianfrancesco who is also responsible for the set. All the song favourites like People and Don’t Rain on My Parade, remain intact, backed by a six-piece band headed by Nick Burgess.
“There are some great numbers that were cut from the movie that are in the show like the duet between Mrs. Brice and the character of Eddy called Who Taught her Everything She Knows? There are some great supporting characters you won’t find in the movie either,” says Epstein.
A challenge she has enjoyed is learning to roller-skate for one of the major numbers. “I roller-bladed as a kid and I ice-skate but this is a little bit different. The downstairs rehearsal hall at the Segal turns into a roller derby every lunch so we can get used to being on roller-skates.”
Epstein spent her childhood in Toronto and continues to be based there. She made her singing debut at age 6 with her parents, lawyer Ian Epstein and children’s Holocaust-theme novelist Kathy Kacer, and brother Jake, now a Broadway actor, at birthday party gigs. Music has always been part of her family that suffered through the Shoah in Czechoslovakia.
Epstein has carried the torch forward and augments her stints in musicals with cabaret shows the 30-year-old puts together.
“They helped me find out who I am as a performer,” she says.
Her most recent solo cabaret was coincidentally Gab Sings Babs (Barbra Streisand).
“People ask me ask me how much of Barbra’s performance will I bring to the Segal. I am acknowledging and using the influences both of Fanny Brice and of Streisand and then am doing my own version,” says Epstein, who has recently put out her first musical-jazz-pop CD, Show Off, on iTunes.
She’s an anthem singer for the Blue Jays and understudied the lead in the Mirvish production of Once. “It was nice to have Funny Girl on the horizon,” she says, “because I knew I was going to get my chance.” For tickets, call 514-739-7944.