BWW Review: THE ROYAL FAMILY at Guthrie Theater
Of the three shows currently running at this flagship regional theater, THE ROYAL FAMILY is definitely the lightweight, longer on comedy and razzle-dazzle production values than on importance. (The other two shows are KING LEAR and PROMISE LAND, a barebones physical theater take on the Hansel and Gretel tale retold as an immigrant story.)
Loosely based on the Barrymore acting clan, THE ROYAL FAMILY follows three generations of a prominent and wealthy family of performers, with particular attention to the female line. The indomitable Elizabeth Franz stars as the matriarch, Fanny Cavendish. Julie Cavendish (Michelle O'Neill), her daughter, is at the height of her leading lady years, and the show depends largely on her charisma and energy. Julie's daughter Gwen, played by newcomer Victoria Janicki, is just 18 and poised to make her debut. What heft there is the ideas in this play arises from their three differing takes on how to balance career with love and family life.
The company of 15 actors includes the self-important Herbert (Bill McCallum) and his silly wife Kitty (Angela Timberman), who are part of the family but seem to lack both talent and taste. Then there's Tony, Gwen's brother, played with relish by Matthew Saldivar. He's a Hollywood star on the run from his latest tabloid scrape, who swashbuckles his way down stairs and over grand pianos. Shawn Hamilton plays Oscar Wolfe, the family's conniving and successful agent, who clearly is an old hand at managing their mayhem. Servants and suitors round out the cast.
Director Rachel Chavkin, who rose to prominence with the Broadway hit THE GREAT COMET, helms this paean to theatrical personalities. With significant help from scenic designer Marte Johanne Ekhougen, she tries to update and deconstruct this text. But it is sufficiently conventional to make these efforts seem pasted on and beside the point.
Edna Ferber and George Kaufman co-wrote this play, which premiered on Broadway in the last days of 1927. That was the same season that the ground-breaking musical SHOW BOAT, based on her best-selling novel, opened to critical acclaim. SHOW BOAT famously broke with the frilly, revue-style musical theater traditions of the time to tell a coherent love story tinged by racial prejudice. Within a year, Sophie Treadwell's MACHINAL, an episodic and evocative tragedy based on the true story of a woman executed for murdering her husband, would create a stir on Broadway. Against those benchmarks, THE ROYAL FAMILY represents a far more standard take on entertainment.
This production clocks in at a full three hours, with both a short act break and a full intermission, and plays through March 19 on the Guthrie's proscenium stage.
Photo credit: Heidi Bohnenkamp