Review: The Royal Family of Broadway Strains to Please at Barrington Stage
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, June 19, 2018
A new musical by William Finn is always worth seeking out, wherever it happens to be playing. Finn has a knack for crafting quirky shows about peculiar people, but in a very endearing way. From the cadre of lovable neurotics in Falsettos to the gaggle of adorable underdogs in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a Finn show virtually guarantees an evening spent among the charmingly irascible.
This is somewhat true of Finn’s latest show, The Royal Family of Broadway, which is currently having its world-premiere engagement by the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Composer/lyricist Finn is paired again here with Spelling Bee librettist Rachel Sheinkin. The production is directed by John Rando and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, the pair who brought such joyous life to the 2012 Barrington production of On the Town, which transferred to Broadway.
I say “somewhat true” because, although Royal Family is certainly populated by the kind of idiosyncratic people Finn typically gravitates toward, at present it’s not quite at the stage where the characters could be called “endearing.” Right now, they’re just kind of over-the-top and annoying.
The musical is based on The Royal Family, the 1927 play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber that is thought by many to be a loving parody of that fabled theatrical dynasty, the Barrymores. Finn has been working a musical version since the 1990s, when playwright Richard Greenberg was attached as librettist. The musical clearly wants to be a big old-fashioned Broadway musical, but Finn and Sheinkin haven’t quite found the right balance of broad farce and winsome introspection they seem to be aiming for.
The Royal Family of Broadway concerns the Cavendish clan, who for generations have trod the boards to theatrical stardom. Fanny Cavendish (the always stellar Harriet Harris) is the redoubtable matriarch, under the watchful oil painting of her late husband Aubrey. Daughter Julie (a wonderfully endearing Laura Michelle Kelly) has been on the stage for years, and upon the reappearance of a former flame, starts to think about giving up the business for stable domesticity. Julie’s adult daughter, Gwen (the radiant Hayley Podschun), is just on the verge of stardom herself, when she starts to think about leaving the business, too.
Right now, one of the show’s main liabilities is the way Julie and Gwen vacillate between their love of show business and their hopes of settling down. Just when you think they’ve made a decision, and made it with conviction, they seem to turn on a dime and be just as convinced of its opposite. It’s hard to get behind these characters when it’s not really clear what they want.
Another liability is Finn’s tentative score. The songs lack the quirky conviction of those from his earlier scores. Watching the show, I had a flashback to seeing Little Miss Sunshine at the Second Stage in New York City, another show that wanted to make its characters both odd and appealing, but couldn’t quite bring it about. The two best numbers in Royal Family are the ones that have already been recorded — “I Have Found” and “Stupid Things I Won’t Do” — notably on Infinite Joy, an essential 2000 concert recording of songs from throughout Finn’s career.
The cast and crew seem to know that the material isn’t quite there yet. Rando and Bergasse overcompensate with unconvincing stage business and general hubbub. The production is certainly busy and loud, but the show isn’t quite the knockabout farce it wants to be. The effort is palpable, which kills much of the the comedy, especially when it comes to the ministrations of the otherwise reliable Will Swenson as Tony, the gadabout older brother with a penchant for swashbuckling gestures and self-aggrandizement.
Right now, there’s a debilitating sense of bloat to the show. The score is stuffed with more character songs that is probably wise, especially the attenuated second act. The Gwen character seems to have more stage time than she really needs. The show seems to want to focus on Julie, Gwen’s mother, who could certainly use more development.
Most egregious of the superfluous numbers is “Gloriously Imperfect,” a would-be 11 o’clock number for the extremely minor character Oscar, the family’s business manager. The number only seems to be there to give legendary Broadway performer Chip Zien a moment to shine. The song is sweet, but it’s sort of like “Miller’s Son” in A Little Night Music, another great song that doesn’t (IMHO) belong in the show. Why are we spending all this time with a minor character when we should be wrapping up the plot?
So, despite having already toiled on the show for a good twenty-plus years, it seems that Mr. Finn has a bit more toiling to do before The Royal Family of Broadway is worthy of its name, its pedigree, and its current cast and crew.
The Royal Family of Broadway presented at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA through 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. Direction by John Rando; choreography by Joshua Bergasse; scenic design by Alexander Dodge; costume design by Alejo Vietti; lighting design by Jeff Croiter; sound design by Joshua Reid; vocal arrangements by Carmel Dean; dance arrangements by Vadim Feichtner; orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin; fight choreography by Ryan Winkles.
Cast: Arnie Burton, Kathy Fitzgerald, Alan H. Green, Harriet Harris, Laura Michelle Kelly, Hayley Podschun; AJ Shively; Will Swenson, Chip Zien with Holly Ann Butler, Michelle Carter, Tim Fuchs, Tyler Johnson-Campion, Tyler Matthew Roberts, and Jake Vacanti.
Cover: (l. to r.) Arnie Burton, Laura Michelle Kelly, Hayley Podschun, Harriet Harris, Holly Ann Butler, Will Swenson and Kathy Fitzgerald in ‘The Royal Family of Broadway;’ photo: Daniel Rader.