Three generations of Cavendish women face a conundrum: Should they marry and leave their stage careers behind? Or forsake love for a life on the Great White Way?
In song, dance and frequently hilarious performances, love and Broadway are the heart of their conflicts in the world premiere comedic musical "The Royal Family of Broadway" at Barrington Stage Company. While not always perfect, the production is huge, dazzling and great fun.
William Finn (music and lyrics) and Rachel Sheinkin (book) took on a daunting challenge when they decided to turn the Richard Greenberg adaptation of the 1930 play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber into a musical. There are 10 major characters: Fanny Cavendish, the family matriarch; Tony Cavendish, her son; Herbert Dean, her brother; Kitty Dean, Herbert’s wife; Julie Cavendish, her daughter; Gwen Cavendish, Julie’s daughter; Perry Stewart, Gwen’s beau; Gilbert Marshall, Julie’s former flame; Oscar Wolfe, theatrical producer; and Della Moran, "domestic stage-manager" (think housekeeper).
Still with me? In typical Kaufman style, they are all more than a little quirky.
Nine of the characters have big musical numbers. Because of the nature of the plot and characters, the majority of the songs in Act I are expository: This is who I am. This is what I want. That's obviously necessary but it makes the act rather choppy. By Act II, we know who all these people are. We care for them. We root for their happiness as the plot smooths out.
Even though Finn's songs in "The Royal Family of Broadway," which takes place in 1927, are brand new, most sound familiar. It's the rhythms as well as the melodies that remind us of show tunes from an earlier era – perhaps purposely. The lyrics are very clever, however, making the songs a joy to listen to even if we've sort of heard them before. Sheinkin's book makes the madcap plot easy to follow, keeps the action moving, and adds many laughs along the way. No easy task.
Hands down, Tony winner Harriet Harris is the star and wonder of the show. As Fanny Cavendish, the matriarch and grande-dame of the family, supposedly modeled on the Barrymore family, she is a commanding presence. Although 63 years of age, she is believable as the much older Fanny. Finn has written her a show stopper, "Stupid Things I Won't Do." Even with a short encore, we wanted more. Fanny may be the crowning role of Harris's stellar career.
Will Swenson, of "Pirates of Penzance" fame at Barrington Stage, is the dashing Tony Cavendish. After the character almost kills a man, he returns to the family only to flee to a monastery. Swenson never stops moving his body or his face. He is exceptionally funny, has a huge voice and is remarkably handsome. We wished he had more stage time.
Laura Michelle Kelly is just fine as Fanny's daughter, Julie, and Gwen's mother. She too has a huge voice, although on occasion, maybe due to unnecessarily large amplification, her high notes were a bit screechy. Hayley Podschun, as Julie's daughter, was sweet and funny. She and A.J. Shively, as Perry Stewart, her beau, sang and danced beautifully together in the only lyrical numbers of the show. (Think "With Anne On My Arm" from "La Cage Aux Folles.")
Alan H. Green was very romantic in pursuing Julie’s love. His voice is gorgeous. Arnie Burton and Kathryn Fitzgerald were consistently humorous in both their singing and acting. Chip Zien was also very funny as Oscar Wolfe, the theatrical producer. Holly Ann Butler made the most of her few comic turns as the "domestic stage manager."
The great contribution of John Rando, the director, and Joshua Bergasse, the choreographer, was the staging. Moving the huge cast around the stage and having each character's personality come through was a major challenge well-met. Bergasse's choreography in the few strictly dance numbers was disappointing – not up to his usual originality.
The sets by Alexander Dodge were breathtaking, as were the costumes by Alejo Vietti. Vadim Feichtner led the excellent 11-person orchestra.
"The Royal Family of Broadway" deserves to be the next in a long line of triumphs at the our local treasure, Barrington Stage Company. It's a wonderful evening (or afternoon) in the theater. And it would surprise no one if the show moved to Broadway, following in the steps of Finn's two other major shows, "Falsettos" and "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."
"The Royal Family of Broadway" runs at Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through July 7. Tickets available online. Music and Lyrics by William Finn; Book by Rachel Sheinkin; Based on "The Royal Family" by George S. Kaufman & Edna Ferber and an original adaptation by Richard Greenberg. Directed by John Rando; Choreography by Joshua Bergasse; Musical Direction and Dance Arrangements by Vadim Feichtner; Scenic design by Alexander Dodge: Costume design by Alejo Vietti: Lighting design by Jeff Croiter; Sound design by Joshua Reid.
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