The Royal Family of Broadway at Barrington Stage

Is This All Star Production Headed for Broadway

By: - Jun 14, 2018

The Royal Family of Broadway
Book by Rachel Sheinkin
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber with adaptation by Richard Greenberg
Directed by John Rando
Choreography by Joshua Bergasse
Musical Direction/ Dance Arrangements by Vadim Feichtner
Scenic design, Alexander Dodge; Costumes, Alejo Vietti; Lighting, Jeff Croiter; Sound, Joshua D. Reid, Wigs, Mary Schilling-Martin
Cast: Harriet Harris (Fanny Cavendish), Laura Michelle Kelly (Julie Cavendish), Haley Podschun (Gwen Cavendish), A.J. Shivley (Perry Stewart), Alan H. Green (Gilbert Marshall), Holly Ann Butler (Della), Arnie Butler (Herbert (Bert) Dean), Kathryn Fitzgerald (Kitty Dean),Chip Zien (Oscar Wolfe), Wil Swenson (Tony Cavendish) and ensemble
Boyd-Quinson Mainstage
Barrington Stage Company
June 7 to July 7, 2018

The Royal Family of Broadway at Barrington Stage is the first smash hit of the 2018 Berkshire Season. When word gets out this is sure to be the hottest ticket in town. Be warned, this world premiere musical will only be around through July 7.

After that, as the title states, if all goes well, it’s Broadway bound.

This show has everything and then some.

For this all-in production Barrington Stage Company has bet the house. They have done it before and may well do it again.

What’s not to like in an old chestnut, theatre about theatre, by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, with the Cavendish clan as surrogates for the legendary Barrymores.

The play premiered on Broadway at the Selwyn Theatre on 28 December 1927. It ran for 345 performances.  This boffo production was developed in house by Barrington’s Musical Theatre Lab produced by Sydelle and Lee Blatt.

For all of the moving parts Barrington has assembled its dream team of proven stars and collaborators.  Start with a book by Rachel Sheinkin then add music and lyrics by William Finn. They have created gems that sparkle in all the right places. The dazzle is crisply enhanced by director John Rando. There is snap, crackle and pop choreography by Joshua Bergasse. A raging pit bull, Vadim Feichtner, is whipping a nine piece orchestra into a symphonic frenzy. Did we mention the kettle drums?

There is a fabulous set featuring tons of warm wood by Alexander Dodge. It is enhanced by the lighting of Jeff Croiter and sumptuous costumes by Alejo Vietti. Set in 1927, when the stock market was on a Great Gatsby roll, there are all the right period details.

Let’s not forget the wigs. Yes folks, the wigs by Mary Schilling-Martin. Her hair piece for Herbert Dean, the comical and somewhat pathetic other branch of the thespian clan (played marvelously by Arnie Butler), has a life of its own. The wig deserves to be credited as another character in the play.

All of the above just sets the stage for that magnificent Cavendish clan of actors.

Their outrageous manner evokes an era when there was drama, on and of stage, which often flirts with melodrama. This is most evident in the swashbuckling, scenery chewing performance of erastaz silent film star, John Barrymore, played by an over-the-top Will Swenson as Tony Cavendish. The energy and gusto soars to the stratosphere when pirate-like he swings on stage clinging to a rope. We were reminded of his sensational Barrington appearance in “Pirates of Penzance.” He won a Berkie for that role.

The heart and soul of this production is portrayed in a grand manner by the fabulous Harriet Harris as the matriarch Fanny Cavendish. One simply cannot image better casting for that key role. With compelling fascination we are in awe at her manipulation of the clan with such delicious irony. Herding cats she is an iron fist in a velvet glove.

The thespian style Fanny evokes is indeed from another era. It is fitting that there is more naturalism as it filters through the generations including her daughter, Julie (Laura Michelle Kelly), who plans to step down and pass the torch to the youngest Gwen (Hayley Podschun). Gwen is suitably fresh, perky, talented but conflicted.

She is torn between stepping up and taking over from her mother, or having, like a life, by marrying the nerdy, doting and very, very rich Perry Stewart (A. J. Shivley). It is a matter of a life in theatre, or like, a life as in real normal life with kids and stuff. But in yikes, the upscale burbs, a grinding commute to eight shows a week. Will their kid be yet another theatrical Cavendish? Channel Drew Barrymore.

The irony is that Gwen opts for a safe, comfortable life but Perry, like all of America, won’t be all that rich, rich, rich for much longer.

This is a frozen moment on the cusp of chaos. It is more than just the theatrical grand manner of Fanny and Tony about to go out of style. A star of silent movies, the career of Tony (think John Barrymore), is about to take a nosedive when talkies take over. Speaking lines means no longer having to broadly pantomime when conveying emotional plot points.

When Wall Street lays an egg on Black Friday the fizzle and swizzle of the Jazz Age goes as flat at last night’s champagne. The morning after finds Gatsby floating face down in his pool as Daisy Buchanan goes on the dole. Brother can you spare a dime?

For the most part this production soars from highlight to highlight. Right now, at two hours with an intermission, it’s rich in potential. As with any musical at this stage of development there are arid passages to be trimmed. Much as we love this show in Pittsfield making it to Broadway can be a bitch.

There are lots of winners. The key plot point is aptly conveyed in “Marry a Man of the Theater” (Fanny, Gwen and Julie). That’s it in a nutshell. It’s the female version and, in the second act, we hear it from the guys (Bert, Perry, Gil, Tony, Oscar) in “If You Marry an Actress.”

The flat out showstopper is the title tune “The Royal Family of Broadway.” It should have ended the first act which came down a notch  with Julie’s “Absolutely Not.” There was a similar stutter step in the second act with Julie’s “Civilization Won’t Die” before the kick out the jams “Finale.”

What’s unusual for a splashy musical is that the well written book lets us care about the characters. Mostly, we feel kindah sad about the less than talented Deans. In such elite company it’s an apt analogy that Bert can’t keep his wig in place.

At the beginning of the second act, however, Bert and Kitty (Kathryn Fitzgerald) are so bad they’re good. Not just good, let’s say great. Their flop about Vikings is over the top. It’s presented as a horrible pratfall that closes on opening night. Truth is, however, that I just couldn’t get enough of it.

Similarly we could have had more from the diminutive, family manager and producer, Oscar Wolfe (Chip Zien). Oscar is utterly captivating is his only solo “Gloriously Imperfect” It’s the kind of performance destined for a Best Supporting Actor in a Musical award.

As  men who love women in the theatre, kudos to the magnificent singing of Alan H. Green as Gil and the pitter patter of Shivley as Perry. He is superb when partnering Gwen in a swirling waltz around the stage neatly choreographed by Bergasse.

Well folks, beg, borrow or steal for this must see musical at Barrington Stage.