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Filling in for Fanny isn’t ‘Funny’ business

Hannah Shankman is no stranger to filling in on iconic roles.

On Broadway she was an understudy for both Elphaba in “Wicked” and Eponine in “Les Miserables.” Now she is traveling the country as standby for Fanny Brice in the national tour of “Funny Girl,” which comes to Cleveland on Tuesday for a three-week run at Connor Palace.

Shankman plays Fanny every Thursday and whenever Katarina McCrimmon is unable to perform.

This isn’t Shankman’s first exposure to the show. She played Fanny Brice in 2017 in a regional theater production of the musical about a young performer’s rise from vaudeville to Broadway stardom.

“It was only 12 performances but it was a magical experience and a great way for me to learn the show before I even audition for this production,” Shankman said during a telephone interview from a tour stop in East Lansing, Mich.

However, the current tour, based on the 2022 Broadway revival, isn’t the same show that first played Broadway in 1964 (and made a star out of Barbra Streisand) or the 1968 film adaptation.

“Most people who are familiar with ‘Funny Girl’ are familiar with the movie,” Shankman said. “I was very familiar with the movie growing up and the stage production is very different from the movie. There are a lot of additional songs and additional text. The ending is a bit different … (For the revival), there are additional songs. Jules Styne, he wrote something like 40 songs, and we added some of those back in. Harvey Fierstein reworked a lot of the dialogue in the show, so this production is a different show than people have seen until now.”

As a standby, Shankman often doesn’t know if she’ll be working that day until hours (sometimes minutes) before the curtain rises. But she has to do the vocal, physical and mental preparation required as if she’s performing in case she is needed.

“It’s about maintaining your absolute best health so you’re in the best shape possible to go on,” she said. “I’m very lucky I get to do it once a week. That helps with the stamina. Fanny sings 15 songs in the show. It’s not an easy thing to step into, but I’m definitely finding my groove with it, and it’s really rewarding.”

The vocal demands aren’t the only element that makes the role challenging. Fanny seldom is offstage, and whenever the character does leave, it’s usually for a quick costume change in the wings with the help of two dressers and a wig person.

There are more than 20 costume changes during the show, and only one or two of them allow her to return to her dressing room for the switch.

The demands on stage and the frenetic pace behind the scenes ultimately are worth it, Shankman said.

“I will say the first time I went on, it felt like a dream come true. I was so overwhelmed by how supporting the cast was and how receptive the audience was. Playing this role was a dream of mine since they announced the Broadway revival. It feels so incredible bringing that dream to fruition.”

It’s not the first time she’s had that feeling. The first time she had a chance to sing “Defying Gravity” on Broadway as Elphaba, Shankman said it was so emotional she burst into tears as soon as the curtain came down for the end of Act I.

“I’ve been very lucky throughout my entire career to play these strong, iconic, determined women who have an enormous effect on the women and the men who see the show.”

If you go …

WHAT: “Funny Girl”

WHEN: Tuesday through March 10. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Connor Palace, Playhouse Square, 1519 Euclid Ave., Cleveland

HOW MUCH: Tickets range from $25 to $115 and are available online at playhousesquare.org and 216-241-6000

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