Monday, June 1, 2015

Review: 'The Royal Family' a lively fun production at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey

The Tony Award-winning classic farce The Royal Family by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, has impressively opened The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 53rd Season. The Royal Family is a wonderful rollicking parody of the great theatrical dynasty, the Barrymores circa 1927 (Remember John, of the Great Profile and his international fame for his romantic films, Ethel, an early Queen of Broadway, and older brother Lionel a long time MGM fixture?)

This lively production is another example of the reason the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey is considered by many the crown jewel of our professional theatres. The Royal Family is a delightfully lavish (great set and costumes) and fun production directed by the theatre's artistic director, Bonnie J. Monte. Ms. Monte's track record over 20 years would earn her an MVP award in baseball (Most Valuable Player), in the theatre, it would be MVAD/ MVD. With The Royal Family she has beautifully staged this play that (dare we say) in other hands might be tarred as dated and old-fashioned. Making it work so well is the impeccable cast she assembled of mostly veterans, of both Broadway and STNJ.

But first, all you may need to know about the plot: In Kaufman and Ferber's thinly disguised tale, we have the Cavendish family, an acting dynasty stretching back to the 1700's, faced with the unthinkable situation....that one of them wishes to marry someone outside of show business and possibly give up the stage! Will she or won't she, that is the question.

The play is set in the Upper East Side duplex apartment of three members of the Cavendish family....the matriarch and Grand Dame of the family, Fanny Cavendish (Elizabeth Shepherd), her daughter Julie (Roxanna Hope) the reigning Broadway super star, and her ingenue daughter Gwen (Samantha Bruce).

The remaining clan members are Fanny's son Tony (Benjamin Sterling) the swashbuckling movie idol, and her brother Herbert Dean (Matt Sullivan) an actor, a bit past his prime, and his wife, Kitty (Allison Mackie). They are assisted by the less flamboyant household team of Jo (Patrick Toon) the butler and Dalla (Emma O'Donnell) as the maid (Obsequious...they are not!).

The three non-family members each having a major impact on the clan are: Oscar Wolfe (Edmont Genest) the family agent/ producer and protector, Perry Stewart (Tug Rice) Gwen's future husband (or is he?), and Gil Marshall (Patrick Boll), Julie's long absent suitor (19 years...time for her to get the acting bug out of her system?). Marshall has several fun lines. In describing his considerable wealth and numerous homes worldwide that it provides- he highlights his home in Como WITH a lake!

Filling several roles are: McDermont (Ryan McCarthy) a boxing trainer (for Julie!) and fencing partner for Tony, Miss Peake (Louise Heller), to reveal her part in the Cavendish zoo would be a plot spoiler, and Hall-Boy (Jordan Buhat).

As we stated earlier, the cast is a marvelous collection of pros with Elizabeth Shepherd, properly regal as the family matriarch, Roxanna Hope spot-on as the challenged, confused Julie,Samantha Bruce a pure delight as the conflicted youngest family member, and Edmont Genest as Oscar Wolf the family voice of sanity AND savior, deserving of special note.

Oops...let's not overlook the wonderful scene stealing (the good kind) from Emma O'Donnell.

This is a most enjoyable play, with all production elements at the major league level. Only missing were Groucho, Harpo and Chico.

Reviewed by Rick Busciglio May 30, 2015

Creating the world of the Cavendish family: scenic designer Charles Murdock Lucas, costume designer Maggie Dick, lighting designer Anthony Galaska, sound designer Karin Graybash, and fight director Rick Sordelet. Denise Cardarelli production stage manager.

The play runs about 2 and 1/2 hours including two intermissions.

Performances ​run through Sunday, June 21st at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Avenue (at Lancaster Road) in Madison. Individual tickets and subscriptions can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 973-408-5600 or by visiting

Note: Both Lionel and John Barrymore attended Seton Hall Prep School then located in Madison, New Jersey a short distance from the Drew campus.

Some background: First performed in 1927, this Kaufman-Ferber comedy ran for 343 performances at the Selwyn Theatre in New York City. Before its West End debut, the play’s title was changed to “Theatre Royal,” to avoid any confusion with the actual royal family. The Royal Family was Kaufman and Ferber’s second collaboration, and they became obsessed with the idea of a household of eccentrics. They settled on portraying a dynasty of acting giants. The 1975 revival of The Royal Family, which ran at the Helen Hayes Theatre for 233 performances, was the first winner of the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Revival of a Play. The 2009 Manhattan Theatre Club revival– touted as “a splendid spread of old-fashioned Broadway pleasures” by the editors of Time Out New York and lauded by Ben Brantley of The New York Times for its “radiance of the pure, inexhaustible love of an ancient craft”– was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

TOP PHOTO:  (L-R): Kitty Dean (Allison Mackie), Julie Cavendish (Roxanna Hope), Oscar Wolfe (Edmond Genest), Herbert Dean (Matt Sullivan), Gwen Cavendish (Samantha Bruce), and Fanny Cavendish (Elizabeth Shepherd) listen as Tony Cavendish (Benjamin Sterling) tells tales about his work abroad. (L-R, back): Gil Marshall (Patrick Boll) and Perry Stewart (Tug Rice) Photo © Jerry Dalia, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey.

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