THEATRE REVIEW: Barrington Stage’s ‘The Royal Family of Broadway’ is Broadway worthyMore Info
The Royal Family of Broadway
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Based on the play “The Royal Family” by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman and an original adaptation by Richard Greenberg, and the film script by Herman Mankiewicz and Gertrude Purcell
Music and lyrics by William Finn
Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse
Directed by John Rando
“No Cavendish gives up the theater for God!”
In December 1975, the second revival of Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman’s play “The Royal Family,” directed by Ellis Rabb, opened at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway. It starred Eve LeGallienne, Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard, Sam Levene, Rosetta LeNoire, Mary Layne, Joe Maher and Mary Louise Wilson, and was designed by Oliver Smith, Ann Roth and John Gleason. I had the great privilege of working on this production and of watching Miss Harris melodramatically flail about, prostrating herself on the deck of the stage, moaning about wanting a real life; and of hearing Miss LeG. deliver one of the greatest speeches ever written for an actress to deliver about the theater and what it means to its denizens. These things I witnessed over and over, and they are indelible — I will never forget them. I was later on tour with the show with Miss LeG. and Carole Shelley and Leonard Frey. The play is as much a part of my life as anything I’ve ever done in the theater.
I knew the 1930 film version with Henrietta Crosman, Ina Claire and Fredric March as well, the first version to add the words “of Broadway” to the title. And I saw the play in London starring Judy Dench, sitting next to George S. Kaufman’s daughter. My friend Ann Schneider and I went to the revival on Broadway in 2009 when Rosemary Harris stepped into the LeGallienne role, essentially playing her own mother. This play is in my blood. I was thrilled to hear that William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin had finally solved the problems of musicalizing the play. Musicals can bring so much to a play such as this one, steeped as it is in the broad traditions of the American stage. I had enjoyed some of the songs for years as they appeared on tribute albums to Finn and his work. Well, last night I saw the new show, the new version, in its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Knowing its source so well, was I pleased or disappointed? Which?
To begin with, the show is not the play. The Cavendish clan, actors all, were based on the Barrymores and everyone who knew theater knew that. The high-edge melodrama of their acting coupled with the high-edge melodrama of their personal lives gave the play a resonance that cannot be ignored. The new show turns the Cavendishes into the first family of musical theater, of operetta and of the newer Jerome Kern/George Gershwin school of musical comedy. It is an ideal conversion and yet it diminishes the importance of these people whose self-importance is all-important to them. They are still the great family, still over-the-top, still performing for everyone including themselves. Their egos are still much larger than their achievements and their achievements are monumental. Sheinkin and Finn have kept the qualities that make this family fun to watch and that’s fabulous. The designers have given us the late 1920s to perfection: costumes that delight with their elaborate handiwork designed by Aleja Vietti, a fussy New York apartment set by Alexander Dodge and theatrical lighting by Jeff Croiter. The highly demanding wigs, one of which is constantly humorous (on purpose and almost its own character), were designed by Mary Schilling-Martin. Director John Rando and this team have delivered a very watchable show that takes us into its time and place and keeps us there in comfort.
However, while the play concentrated on Julie Cavendish (Ethel Barrymore) and her deeply conflicted life, the musical concentrates on Fanny Cavendish, her mother (Georgie Drew Barrymore). The highly volatile Tony Cavendish (John — mostly — Barrymore) has always been a catalyst character and he remains so in this edition. Laura Michelle Kelly plays Julie with a grace and a languid beauty that gives Julie a quirky personality, an indecisive quality that is a bit painful to watch as she wavers back and forth between professional responsibility and personal quest. Kelly sings divinely and gives her songs both first-class musicality and heartfelt emotion. She is the love interest in the play and she handles her scenes with Gil, her old lover now returned to claim her, played handsomely by Alan H. Green.
Julie’s daughter Gwen, played by Hayley Podschun, is also a lovely performer, who dances almost as well as she sings and acts with a teenage petulance that is just about as charming as it could be. Her boyfriend, an outsider, Perry, is played here by A.J. Shively and he does a wonderful job in a role that could have gone nowhere but instead takes off through his dancing, partnering Podschun.
Will Swenson, in his flashiest role since the Pirate King in “The Pirates of Penzance” at Barrington Stage two seasons ago, is a dynamic Tony, a swashbuckler in real life who soaks up foreign culture and religions the way a flirtatious co-ed sucks up the foam at the bottom of her ice cream soda. He is boisterous, bombastic and just about everything Ferber and Kaufman created; and he sings and dances, leaps and cartwheels whenever necessary. He is the complete silent film star package—Douglas Fairbanks and Ricardo Cortez combined.
As the relatives from hell, Herbert and Kitty Dean, Arnie Burton and Kathryn Fitzgerald are funny enough, though no one can ever replace Mary Louise Wilson in my mind. The Deans (the Drew side of the Barrymore family) are not and never have been at the top of the heap, but their work is made as funny as possible, especially in the second act at the opening night of their musical “The Striking Viking,” a very amusing interlude this edition’s writers have created.
Ultimately it is Fanny who holds this show together, and Barrington Stage has Harriet Harris to play the role. Looking far too young for the part, she plays the age of the character very well and, though deprived of that wonderful speech about the theater, she has many bright moments that make you long for more. There are roles that actors grow into and there are roles some actors are just meant to play: Harris was meant to play Fanny Cavendish. She plays the part very well indeed, convincingly earnest and honest even in those over-played moments that the character (not the actress) cannot resist or avoid. I hope someday Harris can revisit the part in the nonmusical play. I ache to hear her give the speech that LeGallienne made so very memorable and Rosemary Harris echoed in that revival. Casting Harriet Harris in this role was both daring and darling, for she is the making of the show.
In the important supporting role of Della, Holly Ann Butler delivers nicely. In the first act, there is a long moment when Della must answer phones, handle telegrams, answer the doorbell and deal with the stairs. Opening night in New York, the company assembled on stage at the Helen Hayes Theatre waiting for Rosetta LeNoire to take the stage and deal with this hilarious moment. Miss LeG. challenged Miss LeNoire: “Get the laughs,” she said, “or we’re not coming on.” LeNoire delivered this opening of the play with the confused and confounded comic source that brought down the house and assured a hit. Miss Butler doesn’t have to face the same challenge in the musical, but she still delivers wonderfully.
Chip Zien as the theatrical manager Oscar Wolfe has not got enough to do so, when he finally has a moment in Act Two to illuminate his devotion to Fanny and her brood in the song “Gloriously Imperfect,” he makes his mark and marks his spot. It is as though we were waiting for this all along and he delivers the goods.
John Rando and Joshua Bergasse have delivered a delicious morsel with this show. The dancing is hyperactive and intricate and romantic and challenging. The staging of the play is dynamic and strong, very definitive in the choices made and sometimes a bit daunting as people appear and disappear as though they were not real characters but only illusions. The theatricality of that is very much in keeping with the tone of the show throughout: The Cavendishes deal with whatever and whoever they need at the moment, and then it’s on to the next scene. Rando gets it right. The show profits from his vision and insight.
I love it when my hopes for something new are satisfied. In this case, in spite of some minor technical glitches and a few favorite moments from the play eliminated, the show lived up to expectations and exceeded them somewhat. The cast and production are Broadway-worthy and, like the Royal Family of Broadway, the concept belongs on the Great White Way where every rhinestone is a diamond and every combed cotton is velvet. This show about theatrics and theatricals is definitely theatrical and defiantly theater. We’re so fortunate to have it here first.
The Royal Family of Broadway plays at Barrington Stage Company’s Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through Saturday, July 7. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go to barringtonstageco.org or call the box office at (413) 236-8888.