By Karen Isaacs
The Royal Family of Broadway is getting its world premiere this summer at Barrington Stage Company through July 7. While it needs some work, the bones are there for a delightful musical.
Willian Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book) have created a new musical based on a fondly remembered play about an outrageous theatrical family. The two collaborated before on the award-winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee which also premiered at Barrington Stage Company.
The musical is based on the play (later movie) by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber and an adaptation by Richard Greenberg.
It revolves around the Cavendish family based loosely on the famous Barrymore acting family. At the time the play was set (1927) these included Ethel, Lionel and the flamboyant John Barrymore. But the family had an illustrious theatrical past.
Here we have the gande dame, Fanny (Harriet Harris), her daughter Julie a successful stage actress, her son Tony, a movie star known for his escapades, and Julie’s daughter Gwen a rising young star. Added in to the mix is Fanny’s brother and sister-in-law (Bert and Kitty) both much less talented, an agent and two love interests – one for Julie and another for Gwen.
Tony arrives unexpectedly, hiding out after another escapade and pursued by reporters. Julie is about to turn over her part in a hit show to Gwen and is looking for the next thing. Gwen is engaged to a young WASP stockbroker (Perry) whom the family does not embrace. She’s also questioning her desire to be in the theater; this horrifies Fanny. To add to the confusion, Julie’s old flame, who went to Brazil and became a millionaire arrives saying he has always loved her; Bert has written a play that he wants Julie to star in but Kitty also wants the part.
Act 1 sets up the complications and leaves us wondering if Gwen and Perry will marry, if Julie will retire and go to Brazil with Gil will Fanny return to the stage, and will the Cavendish legacy continue.
Act 2, set a year later, gives us answers to most of this. Let’s just say that the stage has an allure that is not easily severed.
The musical, sensibly makes the Cavendish family both “straight” actors (those performing in non-musicals) and musical comedy performers. The general outline of the original plot is maintained. However, in making room for the music, it is necessarily tightened.
To my mind, the result of the tightening is that some of the focus of the original is weakened. The original play split the focus between Julie and Fanny; here Fanny seems the main story – her desire for the family tradition to continue and her failing health. But also, perhaps accidentally the subplot of Bert and Kitty seem to become equal to the plots involving Julie, Gwen and Tony. Tony, despite a terrific performance by Will Swenson almost becomes a minor story.
The performances are all fine – Harriet Harris as Fanny and Will Swenson as Tony give us the extravagant gestures of actors who are not only melodramatic but always “on.” Swenson also sings wonderfully and dances. Harris has a voice that may grate after a while; it did for me but she put over her numbers with panache.
The other performers are very good, if not always exuding the “star power” that we are told they possess. This is especially true of Laura Michelle Kelly as Julie and Hayley Podschun as Gwen. It must be admitted that Gwen is the blandest of the Cavendishes. This may be why Bert and Kitty, played terrificially by Arnie Burton and Kathryn Fitzgerald seem to steal the spotlight. The director (John Rando) by giving each a recurring gag: Bert’s toupee is always askew or falling off and Kitty is always looking for something to eat.
As Perry, A. J. Shively is a surprise. He’s supposed to be the stereotypical, upright, reserved WASP, but when he dances and sings, he exudes both charm and charisma. He should do more musicals.
Gil, Julie’s lover is another role that needs further development. Alan H. Green sings wonderfully, but he seems stiff and remote; part of that is the character but it is difficult to understand why Julie has loved him so long.
A highlight of the evening was the song “Gloriously Imperfect” sung touchingly by Chip Zien as the longtime manager of the family. It is quiet and lovely.
Musically, Finn has a lot to work with and much of it is very good. I enjoyed the title tune, “The Girl I’ll Never Be,” “Baby Let’s Stroll,” “I Have Found” and others. I’d like to hear the score again.
Choreographer Joshua Bergasse has captured the dances of Broadway in 1927. There’s tap and more.
Credit must go to the costumes of Alejo Vietti and the arrangements and musical direction of Vadim Feichtner. Overall the sound design was good but at times high notes sounded shrill.
Director Rando has created a very good production that has great potential. It will be interesting to see how it develops. One thing that needs to be done is shorten the opening number of the second act; it is part of a performance of Bert and Kitty’s new show and it goes on too long.
For tickets visit Barrington Stage..