Review: Premiere of Musical 'The Royal Family of Broadway' in Berkshires

 Will Swenson as Tony Cavendish.

Will Swenson as Tony Cavendish.

The show: "The Royal Family of Broadway" at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., in the Massachusetts Berkshires

 "The Royal Family of Broadway" number.

"The Royal Family of Broadway" number.

What makes it special?: Premiere of musical based on the play "The Royal Family" by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber.

 Harriet Harris as Fanny.

Harriet Harris as Fanny.

And what else?: It's a new musical that reunites composer-lyricist William Finn and book writer Rachel Sheinkin, who collaborated on the hit "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," which also premiered at Barrington Stage 14 years ago before moving onto Broadway.

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And this time?: More of a challenge awaits this work-in-progress.  But it's been a work in progress for some time now. The production of this version also has commercial attachment (meaning extra dough for the show) and it shows in this high-end, large-cast musical production with some significant actors involved.

Back story?: Getting the rights to make a musical of the play was not a slam-dunk at first but eventually the creative team succeeded and proceeded. But you can understand the initial hesitation. The original play is a delicate balance of farce, warmth and sentiment. It looks effortless but that's the genius of Kaufman and Ferber's script. You don't see the hard work at hand.

Then there was a memory of a wondrous production in the '70s which was one of the great joys of my theater-going life starring Eva Le Gallienne, Rosemary Harris and Sam Levine, directed by Ellis Rabb (who also played Tony in the filmed production of the play that was on PBS.) But for most audiences, this is all new, even as its all-old.

 

What's it about?: We are in 1927 and Fanny Cavendish, the doyenne of a great acting family -- think the Barrymores --  is feeling her elderly age and now walks with a cane but is still looking forward to returning to the stage where her daughter Julie is a star and her grandaughter Gwen is about the join the family business.

But an old lover returns and temps Julie to shuck it all, and Gwen's beau is also wooing her to domestic life, too. Meanwhile, son Tony -- the extravagant old-school ham, I mean "actor" -- is on the run because of that little incident in Hollywood when he stabbed a film director. There's also Fanny's talent-free brother Bert and his equally un-gifted wife Kitty in the mix. Will Fanny's daughter give up the stage? Will Tony flee the country? Will Fanny have a comeback.?  Will there be an end to this theater dynasty?

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That's a lot going on: Yes, at at a heightened pitch, too. It's a theatrical gang, after all.  As a tightly directed comedy, the clockwork precision of the Kaufman-Ferber script can be a thing of beauty. But it's also a matter of finding the right tone and John Rando's often awkward and sometimes inconsistent direction doesn't have it, at least not yet.

But music also adds an element that creates new challenges for this adaptation --- and sometimes the score succeeds and at other times  not so much.

We don't think of William Finn ("Spelling Bee," "Falsettos") as being a period composer so that must be a problem: Nope.. Finn;'s deft lyrics have a true conversational parlance and it works fittingly here and the music is a savvy blend of pastiche -- with a twist. The music adds an emotional resonance that is quite lovely at times, especially in a work that has moments of both flamboyance and sentimentality.

 

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So what's the big problem?  It's called "The Royal Family" but there doesn't seem to be much of a family feel here. Oh, Fanny goes on and on (and on and on) about her dearly departed husband, but there's little human connection among the clan. It's a self absorbed group and yes, that's part of the fun and humor, the obliviousness of theater-folk and all that.

But there has to be some realness here, of a real family connection beyond the footlights. I thought of another Kaufman script which he wrote with Moss Hart, "You Can't Take It With You." It centered on an eccentric family with a romantic dilemma at the center of the plot, but that was a family that connected with each other .that anchored the looniness of its exaggerated characters. In "The Royal Family off Broadway," forget about being supporting players in each others' lives in this brood, these relations think of each other as having only cameo roles. 

But clearly the cast in top drawer and each has their individual moments. Harriet Harris brings comic chops, gravitas and even fierceness  to the role. But, like rest of the show, Harris is still working the balance between going grand and becoming intimate, having the audience come to her. "Stupid Things I Won't Do" is a terrific song but it tries too hard to be the show stopper it so clearly is designed to be.

Laura Michelle Kelly as Julie sings beautifully and does credit to "I Havre Found" and Hayley Podschun as a Gwen scores in "The Girl I'll Never Be." For pure scenery-chomping silliness there's Swenson's "Too Much Drama in My Life" and Bert and Kitty's "Avaunt, Avaunt:" but it, too, tries too hard for less than killer results.  Arnie Burton and Kathryn Fitzgerald as Bert and Kitty have their moments, but some of them are more clunky than clever..

Swenson has dash, sexiness and a great voice but his character as written is all caricature. I couldn't  get past Alan H. Green's oddly overarticulated singing style as Julie's ex-lover.. The major domo of the Cavendish household is Della, an underwritten part that is ever-present yet doesn't seem to exist.

But I was charmed by the light, right touch of A. J. Shivley, as Gwen's beau. Their duet "Baby Let's Stroll" was a delight, giving a bland role some spark.

But do you know who moved me the most in the show? Fanny's long-time agent Oscar, played by Chip Zien. He hasn't much to do during most of the show but then suddenly towards the end of the musical, he has a solo song, "Gloriously Imperfect," in which he sings of seeing Fanny on stage for the first time when he was a boy. Zien's vocal delivery gets right to the heart of things (just as he did  in "Into the Woods," "Falsettos"). But you know the show needs work -- and lots of it -- when the best number in the production is sung by the agent.

And the script?: Crafty. Sheinkin's book takes Fanny's final speech in the play and uses that as the basis to open the musical, and it's not a bad way to set the scene, and to enter the world of this theater family. But what does that leave Fanny with for her grand Act Two exit? A senior moment in rehearsal for a proposed comeback gives Fanny true heartbreak when she realizes that it's the end of her theatrical life. But seeing her family rally in that great show biz tradition, gives her -- and the audience -- at least some uplift -- though the long scene is awkwardly jerry-rigged to get to that point.

Production values are swell with Alexander Dodge managing to create a lived-on apartment where most of the action takes place -- as well as a variety of reasonably designed far-flung spaces. Alejo Vietti designs some nifty outfits, too. But I could have sworn I saw that inflatable swan that Kitty uses on my way to Cape Cod last summer.

 

 Kathryn Fitzgerald as Kitty.

Kathryn Fitzgerald as Kitty.

Who will like it?: Theater insiders. Admirers of Finn, Holmes and Swenson.

Who won't?: Those tired of shows about indulgent theater folk. Perhaps those warmed best by the glow of the original play.

 Harriet Harris as Fanny.

Harriet Harris as Fanny.

For the kids?: They might find some fun in it but it's two and a half hours and so be sure to brief them on the Barrymores. Perhaps compare then to the Kardashians as a point of reference.

 Alan H. Green and Laura Michelle Kelly. 

Alan H. Green and Laura Michelle Kelly. 

Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Some fun but not yet a family that matters.

 Harriet Harris and Laura Michelle Kelly.

Harriet Harris and Laura Michelle Kelly.

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: Sometimes the process of developing a musical is a long and meandering one. We like to think things are near perfect from the get-go but most often musicals just aren't and fixing them is a messy business. There's some fine work here but at this point, it's far from an integrated whole.  This family needs some more loving im more ways than one before it's ready for  Broadway. 

 Chip Zien singing "Gloriously Imperfect."

Chip Zien singing "Gloriously Imperfect."

The basics: The show continues through July 7 at the Boyd-Quinson MNainstage, 30 Union Ast., Pittsfield. 

 Laura Michelle Kelly

Laura Michelle Kelly

 Hayley Podschun and A.J. Shively

Hayley Podschun and A.J. Shively

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