Monday, June 25, 2018

Genre Shift: The Royal Family of Broadway

The cast of John Rando's The Royal Family of Broadway. (Photo: Daniel Radler)

George Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s 1927 The Royal Family is a high comedy classic about a celebrated family of narcissistic actors, three generations of them, whose lives are an ongoing melodrama. Fanny Cavendish, the crusty matriarch, performed for decades on the road with her late husband and is anxious to return and impatient with the health problems that have sidelined her. She views herself as a sort of pioneer, inured to the challenges of the frontier. Her daughter Julie is a Broadway queen, floating from vehicle to vehicle. Her son Tony is a movie star, a matinee idol whose outrageous behavior and sexual conquests have made him a favorite topic for the tabloids. Her brother Herbert has fallen on hard times, professionally speaking, because he refuses to acknowledge his age; rather than taking “gray parts,” he pursues the folly of attempting to beat actors twenty and thirty years his junior at their own game. Julie’s daughter Gwen is poised to follow in her mother and grandmother’s footsteps; she and Julie are about to begin rehearsals together for a new play. The family’s entourage includes their long-time producer and manager, Oscar Wolfe, who entered the business when Fanny’s star burned as brightly as Julie’s does now and who is devoted to all of them, and Bertie’s wife Kitty, a third-rate actress whom neither Fanny nor Julie has ever taken seriously. The play is premised on the struggle, for both Julie and Gwen, between the impulse to settle down with the men who want to marry them (Julie divorced Gwen’s father long ago; he’s barely even spoken of, except as a bad actor) – and their recognition that, finally, the theatre means more to them and they could never settle for ordinary lives.

The playwrights are parodying the Barrymores, most specifically in their portrayal of Tony, whose famous profile is a running gag. In the charming 1930 movie version, The Royal Family of Broadway, directed by George Cukor, Fredric March does an uproarious burlesque of John Barrymore. But the point is lost in the musical version (which borrows its name from the film) by Rachel Sheinkin (book) and William Finn (music and lyrics), because the Cavendishes, except for Tony, are now musical-comedy stars. And watching the premiere production of the musical at Barrington Stage, directed by John Rando and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, I just couldn’t get comfortable with the change. Perhaps that’s partly because I know the original material so well and have seen it performed both at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (in a memorable production with Marian Seldes, Blythe Danner and Hope Davis as the three generations of actresses and Victor Garber as Tony) and on Broadway, but mainly it’s because Sheinkin and Finn haven’t thought it through – even though Finn has been working on it for nearly two decades, initially in collaboration with Richard Greenberg. Sheinkin (or she and Greenberg, who gets a credit for adapting the original) has done an admirable job of paring down and reconfiguring a nearly three-hour play without eliminating any of the salient plot points. But the Barrymores were authentic theatrical aristocracy; it’s their status that makes Kaufman and Ferber’s play a high comedy. When they become musical-theatre stars the material morphs into a hard-boiled comedy. Sheinkin underscores the shift by making the farce broader: the vehicle Bertie (Arnie Burton) manages to get on the stage is no longer a historical pageant with Bertie in all the main parts – a debacle we only hear about in the original – but a ridiculous musical about Vikings with Kitty (Kathryn Fitzgerald) as the ingĂ©nue. We see a number from it on opening night (which is also closing night), and it’s so inept you don’t believe it would ever have graced a professional stage at all; Kitty’s contribution seems better suited to The Play That Goes Wrong. Yet every now and then Sheinkin includes a patch of dialogue from Kaufman and Ferber, and suddenly we’re in the world of high comedy again.

The title song references Gershwin and Berlin and Rodgers and Hart, but if Julie is a second-generation musical-comedy star, then her parents would have been vaudevillians; Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart weren’t even around when Fanny and her husband Aubrey were touring the provinces. Yet the photo of Aubrey hanging over the mantle, just like the one Kaufman and Ferber ask for in the stage directions, shows him in traditional Shakespearean costume, and it’s not convincing that vaudevillians would look down on Tony’s making a sensational career for himself in movie swashbucklers, as especially Fanny (Harriet Harris) does. Harris’s big first-act number, ”Stupid Things I Won’t Do,” starts off the list with reading the newspapers, except when there’s a review of an opening night. But an actress who starred in Shakespeare with her husband would more likely be an intellectual and an avid reader. Didn’t Sheinkin and Finn notice these inconsistencies? They aren’t cosmetic; there’s a big difference between high and hard-boiled comedy. The script tries to split that difference somehow by having Julie (Laura Michelle Kelly) about to go into rehearsal for Show Boat, though she surrenders the role of Magnolia when, at the end of the first act, she decides to give up the theatre to marry her old suitor, the Brazilian emerald king Gilbert Marshall (Alan H. Green). But there were no serious book musicals before Show Boat, so Julie couldn’t be known for performing in shows with weighty themes, though her mother implies at one point that she is.

Chip Zien as Oscar Wolfe. (Photo: Daniel Radler)

If the book is all over the place, so is Finn’s score, which sometimes sounds like his model was the great American songbook and sometimes sounds distinctly post-Sondheim. The problem is exacerbated by some of the casting: Kelly belts her songs as if she were in an Andrew Lloyd Webber show, and Green, who has a resonant r & b voice, phrases his as if they were discards from Dreamgirls. I’ve always had the neither-fish-nor-fowl problem with Finn’s music, I don’t get his extended rhythms, and his lyrics often sound clunky to my ears. The best songs in The Royal Family of Broadway are the ones he’s written for Gwen (Hayley Podschun) and her stock broker beau Perry Stewart (A.J. Shively) – “Baby Let’s Stroll” in act one shows off both performers as dancers as well as singers. (Shively is a first-rate hoofer.) I also enjoyed the company number, “Nobody’s Left in the Theatre,” early in act two, and Tony’s “Too Much Drama in My Life” and its second-act reprise, “More Drama.” The show always gets a lift when Will Swenson is on stage as the eternally scene-stealing Tony, whose vanity is so childlike it’s endearing; Swenson is the best thing in the musical. It’s framed, however, as more Fanny’s show than any other character. Harriet Harris ought to the right choice for a role that, if the musical had been written by Cole Porter in the late forties or early fifties, might have gone to the wry, long-legged Charlotte Greenwood, who starred for him in Out of This World. But here too the musical can’t make up its mind – in this case, whether to take Fanny seriously or camp her up. Harris fares way better when we’re allowed to take her seriously; the musical doesn’t take nearly enough advantage of her acting skills. Chip Zien plugs away gamely in the role of Oscar Wolfe, but, even with a ballad, “Gloriously Imperfect,” that’s a tribute to Fanny, the role feels underwritten. Arnie Burton plays Bertie as gay, for some reason, so his scenes with Fitzgerald don’t make much sense. And Kelly ( Mary Poppins, Finding Neverland), whose character is at the heart of the original material, is lackluster and oddly humorless.

Rando and Bergasse has proven to be a dynamic team in their collaborations for Barrington Stage, but The Royal Family of Broadway seems to have baffled them too, especially Bergasse, whose big numbers in this show feel constrained. He’s at his best when he has just Shively and Podschun alone on the stage. You feel the limitations of the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage in Pittsfield as you didn’t in eitherOn the Town (which transferred to Broadway) or The Pirates of Penzance, both of which were glorious successes for Rando and Bergasse. The emendations to Kaufman and Ferber’s text has put a burden on the scenic designer, Alexander Dodge – the original was set entirely in the Cavendishes’ luxurious split-level Manhattan apartment – and though the results are fluid, they lack style. Jeff Croiter has lit the show efficiently, and except for Kelly’s unfortunate final gown, the Alejo Vietti’s costumes are excellent; Harris’s glamorous twenties outfits stand out.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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