Take a stroll in midtown Manhattan, and you’ll come across brightly lit marquees emblazoned with the names of American theater royalty: Belasco, Brooks Atkinson, Eugene O’Neill, Lunt-Fontane, Richard Rodgers… the list goes on. A name that you’re not likely to find any time soon, in spite of the considerable resources poured into the production, is Cavendish, the fictional surname in The Royal Family of Broadway, a new musical premiering at Barrington Stage Company.
Featuring a book by Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyrics by William Finn, various incarnations of the piece have been kicking around for years, drawing inspiration from the original play by George S. Kaufman an Edna Ferber, and another adaptation by Richard Greenberg. In a pre-show curtain speech, a theater representative described Sheinkin and Finn’s work as a love letter to Broadway. Unfortunately, it’s been lost in the mail.
The story takes place in the late 1920s and centers on the Cavendish family, three generations of actors who have dominated the Broadway stage. Matriarch Fanny (Harriet Harris), ailing in health, wants to keep the tradition alive. Her adult actor children include Tony (Will Swenson, though in the performance I saw, the role was underwhelmingly played by Aaron Bartz) and Julie (Laura Michelle Kelly). Fanny’s granddaughter, Gwen (Hayley Podschun), has also taken to the stage. But eight shows a week is starting to wear thin, and each longs for something more than a standing ovation out of life.
To push the plot forward, Julie’s long gone but not forgotten love, Gil (Alan H. Green), reappears to woo her back, while Gwen’s straight-laced boyfriend Perry (A.J. Shively) pushes her to leave the theater and start a family. Fanny will hear none of it, wanting to keep the tradition alive as her health begins to fail.
Sheinkin and Finn collaborated on the Tony Award-winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (which also premiered at Barrington Stage Company), a production that charmingly captured the unique, quirky personalities of its teen competitors in both style and song, but The Royal Family of Broadway buckles under the pressure of its bigger-than-life sensibility. It’s a joyful idea, but there’s little to celebrate onstage with some critical miscasting by director John Rando and casting directors Pat McCorkle and Katja Zarolinski.
Harris, who won a Tony Award for her deliciously evil performance in Thoroughly Modern Millie, can deliver a wisecrack, but it’s difficult to believe that her Fanny was ever a statuesque, leading lady. Kelly, too, as her daughter, seems out of place, beginning with her sluggish tap-dancing in choreographer Joshua Bergasse’s opening sequence, which begs for star power. (The Patti LuPone kind, where the diva stood center stage in Anything Goes, basking in her glory while the ensemble hoofed around her.) We’re led to believe that Julie is burned out, but Kelly (in spite of powerhouse vocals) is so vacant one hopes more than anything that she has time for a nap before the next show.
Podschun as the youngest Cavendish is the gem in the royal family’s crown, and Shively makes a fine sparring partner in their Act I duet, “Baby Let’s Stroll.” The era suits her well, both in terms of the lanky, flapper-era costumes by Alejo Vietti, but more importantly, the heightened style that she still manages to root in authenticity.
Fannie’s less talented brother, Bert (Arnie Burton) and his bawdy, ambitious wife Kitty (Kathryn Fitzgerald) also liven up the action with their desperate attempts to stay employed amid the Cavendish’s theatrical endeavors, culminating in their appearance in Striking Viking, a flop of a play within the play. Another subplot involves the consequences of Tony’s altercation with a silent film director, which inspires him to obtain a passport and go on a religious pilgrimage to purge himself of his dramatic inclinations. It’s silly fun, and I imagine Swenson, who was captivating in The New Group’s Jerry Springer: The Opera, is terrific in the role.
Sadly, the greatest miscasting in The Royal Family of Broadway is that of composer/lyricist. Finn’s 40-year career continues to be celebrated with acclaimed productions around the world. Last year’s Broadway revival of Falsettos proves that his work stands the test of time. Go to any cabaret open mic and you’re likely to hear his music earnestly sung. But here, Finn quickly loses his way after his Gershwin/Porter-esque opening, “Just Another Regular Night/Listen to the Beat” as the score struggles to establish an identity. Big, contemporary ballads, though beautifully sung, feel awkwardly out of place, as does Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations featuring brush percussion and other soft-pop touches.
Most depressing is the curtain call, staged somewhat in character, as the actors milk their final bows as a wink, perhaps, to the theater’s inherent narcissism. Unfortunately, by that point, the audience already had one foot out the door, proving that the Cavendish’s fictional reign may finally come to an end.
The Royal Family of Broadway
Barrington Stage Company
30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA
Through July 7
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @wexlerwrites.