REVIEW: “The Royal Family of Broadway” at Barrington Stage

by Roseann Cane

What do you get when you bring together a thoroughly brilliant cast of singing, dancing actors, a preternaturally gifted director, and a supremely inspired choreographer? You get a hit, a palpable musical theater hit, and if you want savor the recipe, you’d be well advised to reserve your tickets to The Royal Family of Broadway before the end of its run at the Barrington Stage Company on July 7th.

In 1927, George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s play, The Royal Family, a parody of the formidable Barrymore dynasty of actors, opened on Broadway to great success. The play especially skewered brother and sister John Barrymore (“Tony Cavendish”) and Ethel Barrymore (“Julie Cavendish”), and while John Barrymore was reported to find the play amusing, Ethel Barrymore let the press know that she was mightily offended.

Of course, in 1927, theatergoers were very familiar with the Barrymore clan, and much amused by Tony Cavendish’s drinking, womanizing, wildly narcissistic ways. Ethel Barrymore was known as a great actress who was also a beautiful femme fatale who would milk her curtain calls and extend applause by (famously) declaring, “That’s all there is—there isn’t any more!” Prima donna that she was, perhaps she thought that Julie Cavendish was beneath her, or she perhaps she lacked her brother’s self-awareness.

Though the play has seen many revivals, I think it’s fair to say that over the years, it’s become less of a parody and more of a comedy. Contemporary audiences are likely unaware of the Barrymore family (except perhaps for Drew), and I wondered if the musical adaptation would lose much of the bite the play had in its heyday.

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As it turns out, whether or not The Royal Family of Broadway lacks that bite doesn’t matter. The musical is lavishly entertaining, and the characters are very funny, familiar archetypes. Will Swenson is a delicious Tony, all swagger and self-importance. His perfectly executed acrobatics, along with his histrionic machismo, also pay homage to Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. As Julie, Laura Michelle Kelly is a beautiful, graceful firecracker, confident in her craft, conflicted about her love life. Her singing voice is astonishing in its range and depth, and how I wish she (along with the rest of the cast) hadn’t been mic’d. The amplification in the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage is far too, well, amplified, and as a result I braced myself each time the excellent orchestra began to play, because the force of the sound was ear-splittingly painful. It also affected the dialogue, making the transition from song to speech jarring and difficult to adjust to.

As matriarch Fanny, Harriet Harris is elegant and dignified, with a wicked sense of humor. Alan H. Green, as Julie’s love interest, Gil, has a rich, burnished voice and stellar stage presence. Chip Zien’s Oscar is warm, charming and poignant. Hayley Podschun’s Gwen somehow manages to be at once gossamer and steely, and Arnie Burton and Kathryn Fitzgerald are delightfully silly as Bert and Kitty Dean. A.J. Shively’s Perry shows himself as a delightful surprise–after maintaining an appropriately buttoned-up persona, he reveals some exceptionally good singing and dancing.

And oh, the singing and dancing! The energy of the entire ensemble, which included people of varying ages, shapes, and sizes, would be dizzying if it weren’t so good. Joshua Bergasse’s choreography, and Vadim Feichtner’s musical direction and dance arrangements were original yet evocative, and stunningly executed. Alexander Dodge’s scenic design was a feast for the eyes, as were Alejo Vietti’s glorious costumes.

Rachel Sheinkin (book) and William Finn (music and lyrics) have created a living, breathing play about 1927 show business, and that they and Richard Greenberg have embellished and fortified an important piece of theater history is no small feat. While I would have preferred not to hear a few bits of contemporary vernacular (for example, a song titled “Too Much Drama In My Life,” as well as a line of dialogue, “She keeps me real”), that’s a minor complaint, considering the spectacular whole of this play.

Barrington Stage Company presents The Royal Family of Broadway on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage from June 7-July 7, 2018. Book by Rachel Sheinkin; music and lyrics by William Finn; based on the original play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber and an original adaptation by Richard Greenberg. Directed John Rando; choreographed by Joshua Bergasse; musical direction/dance arrangements by Vadim Feichtner; scenic design by Alexander Dodge; costume design by Alejo Vietti; lighting design by Jeff Croiter; sound design by Joshua D. Reid; wig design by Mary Schilling-Martin; production stage manager Renee Lutz.

CAST:  Harriet Harris as Fanny Cavendish; Laura Michell Kelly as Julie Cavendish; Hayley Podshun as Gwen Cavendish; A. J. Shively as Perry Stewart; Alan H. Green as Gilbert Marshall; Holly Ann Butler as Della; Arnie Burton as Herbert (Bert) Dean; Kathryn Fitzherald as Kitty Dean; Chip Zien as Oscar Wolfe; Will Swenson as Tony Cavendish; with Michelle E, Carter, Tim Fuchs, Tyler Johnson-Campion, Lindsay Kraft, Sam Paley, Tyler Roberts, Patrick Sharpe, Westley Strausman, Chiara Trentalange, Jack Vacante, and Noah Virgile.

Performances: Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00pm, Thursday through Saturday at 8:00pm, Wednesday and Friday at 2:00pm, and Sunday at 5:00pm. Opening night June 13 at 7:00pm. Boyd-Quinson Mainstage (30 Union Street). Tickets: $15 – $75. Barrington Stage Box Office: (413) 236-8888 or online at www.barringtonstageco.org.

Playwright Speaks Series: Writing a Broadway Musical with William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin. Friday, June 15 at 4:00pm at the St. Germain Stage at at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center (36 Linden Street). FREE.

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