PITTSFIELD — In an interview in this month's issue of American Theatre, composer-lyricist William Finn describes his new musical, "The Royal Family of Broadway," as a "kind of dangerous love letter to the theatre. It's not full-throated," Finn tells his interviewer, Edward Karam. "It's an equivocal love letter."
Equivocal, it turns out, is an apt description for the untidy material Finn has crafted with his "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" collaborator, librettist Rachel Sheinkin, that is having its world premiere under the aegis of Barrington Stage Company's Musical Theatre Lab. The word goes directly not only to the conflicts faced by two members of the three generations of Cavendishes who occupy center stage but also to a show whose various impulses are more in conflict than in harmony. This is a big Broadway musical wannabe with the heart of a chamber piece.
Based on a sly, witty, often cynical, if also clunky, on occasion 1927 comedy by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber and an adaptation by playwright Richard Greenberg as the original book for Finn's musical, "The Royal Family of Broadway" focuses on three generations of an American acting dynasty — the Barrymore-inspired Cavendish family: Fanny (a too-often barking, braying Harriet Harris who seems more like a petulant child than a domineering grand dame of the theater whose only career onstage late in life is through her daughter and granddaughter); her wayward son, Tony (Will Swenson, who has found new ways to push excess to boorish excess), a stage and screen actor who is on the lam after having stabbed the director of the film he was shooting; his sister, Julie (Laura Michelle Kelly in a rich and fully developed portrayal); and Julie's daughter from her failed marriage, Gwen (an incandescent Hayely Podschun). Also on hand are Fanny's brother, Herbert Dean (Arnie Butler), a wannabe producer-actor-director who wants Julie to star opposite him in a new play, "The Striking Viking," but is forced instead to cast his considerably less-talented wife, Kitty (Kathryn Fitzgerald), with calamitous results, played out for us in a gratuitous scene that opens the second act. Also on the scene are theatrical producer and longtime family friend, Oscar Wolfe (a likable Chip Zien), and Gwen's fiance, Perry Stewart (a thoroughly engaging, nimble and agile A.J. Shively).
Watching over all this is the love of Fanny's life, her long-deceased husband, Aubrey, whose massive full-length portrait dominates a wall off to one side of the stage.
This is the late 1920s and acting styles were, for the most part, broad and grand. That sense of grandeur permeates the Cavendish clan as much offstage as it does onstage. For them, life is one grand performance writ large as they move from one show to the next, one situation offstage to the next.
As "The Royal Family of Broadway" begins, Julie is passing the Cavendish torch on to her daughter, who is preparing to make her Broadway debut by replacing yer mother in her current hit while Jule begins rehearsals for her next play.
But love stakes its claim. Gwen is engaged to Perry, a successful young Wall Street stock broker who has earned Fanny's disdain because he is not of the theater. As played by Shively, Perry is a welcoming, engaging, often playful and whimsical stand-up guy who wants a "normal" life, making a conventional home wuth wife and children in the suburbs of New York. It's easy to see why Podschun's Gwen falls for him, especially when the two of them are singing and dancing together in their ingratiating first-act number, "Baby, Let's Stroll." Gwen is convinced herself she is ready to give up the stage for that life and Julie supports her, but is she ready, willing? The question she faces — as does Julie when, out of the blue, Gil (an adequate Alan H. Green), a man she loved once who was chased out of her life by Fanny, made millions in Brazil, returns to claim her — is just what is normal? Must life be either or — life onstage or life offstage. And while the two women seem to find the answers to that question at the end of Act One, Act Two, which is set "one year and two hours later," examines what happens when you get what you wish for. For Gwen, who has married Perry and now has a baby they've named Aubrey, it isn't. "Aubrey needs my breast/but I want more./I won't take a leading role/But a role to keep me whole," she sings in "I Want More." The conflict is equally agonizing for Julie as, in her song "Civilization Won't Die," she weighs the consequences of the choices she is facing given the opportunity she now has to live the life she says she's always wanted to live.
Finn's own respect for theater, its grand traditions and styles, are reflected in his often jaunty score which draws on musical styles of the late 1920s and '30s. That affection for the stage also is reflected in Joshua Bergasse's evocative choreography which, throughout, parades familiar but no less stylish patterns.
But the fundamental issue with "The Royal Family of Broadway" is that there is very little here to make us care, let alone want to become involved, at any level with the concerns of this family. For the most part, these are boorish people playing out boorish roles; grotesque, at times, caricatures rather than characters.
In "Gloriously Imperfect," his one song near the end of "The Royal Family of Broadway," Zien's Oscar reflects on what it was that made Fanny so captivating onstage despite the fat that others onstage were more adept and skilled. "Coarseness existed with class," he sings at one point. But it's class that is missing on the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage; class and finesse. Add to that a pedestrian wit-free book by Sheinkin in a nuance-free John Rando-directed production that bounces randomly from one point to another like a pinball.
"We are such stuff as dreams are made on," Tony whispers lovingly to his mother as he prepares to go onstage for a special Cavendish family reunion performance.
"Less is more," she replies.
Words to live by.
Jeffrey Borak can be reached at email@example.com or 413-496-6212