Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Royal Family (The SOB Review)

The Royal Family (The SOB Review) - Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Club, New York, New York

*** (out of ****)

It's not every Broadway show that receives entrance applause for its set design.

Yet when the velvety red curtain goes up on the Manhattan Theatre Club’s majestic new revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's classic The Royal Family, how can anyone help but cheer. Sure Doug Hughes' direction is a bit lopsided toward his second and third acts at the expense of a slow start, but he more than makes up for it with an overall production that's lavishly grand in virtually every way, including John Lee Beatty's gorgeous scenic design fit for a queen.

That monarch, by the way, would be the play's reigning royalty of theatre, Fanny Cavendish, portrayed by the regally iridescent Rosemary Harris. Fanny's entire brood -- including daughter Julie (an exquisite Jan Maxwell), son Tony (a royally randy Reg Rogers), granddaughter Gwen (a sparkling Kelli Barrett), brother Herbert (a brilliantly funny John Glover) and sister-in-law Kitty (an over-the-top Ana Gasteyer) -- might not possess a single drop of blue blood, but they all have show business coursing through their veins à la the Barrymores.

Having already earned a Tony nomination when portraying Julie in the 1975-76 revival, Harris adds supreme depth as an acclaimed actress who would sooner die on stage than abdicate her leading role there. With gravitas to spare, Harris enjoys a career-crowning achievement.

With this theatrical legend presiding over The Royal Family of actors, following in Harris' footsteps as Julie might be a little intimidating, causing lesser actresses to bow to the pressure. Fortunately, Maxwell not only ascends to the throne in a role perfectly suited to her immense dramatic and comedic range, but she makes this Julie all her own. Maxwell creates a lasting impression deserving to be heralded come Tony time.

Hughes' largely sterling ensemble, which also includes Tony Roberts, Larry Pine and Freddy Arsenault, is also to be hailed. Rather than making this period piece creaky, the cast brings a fresh exuberance that establishes this Royal Family as eminently enjoyable and entertaining.

Ultimately, they're all subjects to the realm of Harris and Maxwell, who succeed in transforming this family jewel of a show into a profoundly moving experience.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

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