At Barrington, William Finn's Royal Family and Bekah Brunstetter's The Cake
A new musical and a new play take the stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
A royal cast headlines The Royal Family of Broadway, William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's musical adaptation of the 1927 Kaufman and Ferber play The Royal Family. Harriet Harris heads the company as the imperious matriarch of an acting dynasty; Laura Michelle Kelly and Will Swenson play her famous children. Chip Zien and Arnie Burton take on supporting roles. So why does this Barrington Stage Company premiere, directed by John Rando and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, fall so flat?
As a property, The Royal Family of Broadway feels like it's been around for almost as long as the source material; a different iteration of the work, with a score by Finn and book by Richard Greenberg, was making the rounds as early as 1998. This version is polished, certainly, and Rando and Bergasse throw as much Broadway razzmatazz as they can at it, with stately sets (Alexander Dodge), glittery costumes (Alejo Vietti), and a big, brassy orchestra conducted by Vadim Feichtner. But Sheinkin's book is sluggish, and Finn's score is surprisingly lazy ("The royal family of Broadway/Da-da-da-da-da-da-da/We are the family that stands for Broadway" is an actual lyric for this family of supposed theater sophisticates).
That leaves it all up to the cast to make this show work. And, though they're talented, we've seen Harris chew the scenery and Swenson do his best Errol Flynn in other shows. The real standout here is Zien, who has a very affecting eleven o'clock number where he wistfully sings of his great memories of this "royal family." It's only too bad the rest of the production doesn't receive that same kind of royal treatment.
Much more successful is Bekah Brunstetter's play The Cake, at Barrington's St. Germain Stage. Timely and heartbreaking, the 90-minute work is about a baker who refuses to make a lesbian couple's wedding cake.
Della (Debra Jo Rupp, sensational) runs her own bakeshop in North Carolina. Baking is her life — to the point that she's about to appear on The Great American Baking Show. Jen (Virginia Vale), the daughter of her late best friend, has returned home to prepare for her wedding to Macy (Nemuna Ceesay). When Della turns down their request (owing, of course, to too busy a schedule), it forces her to confront her own belief system, as well as throws the balance of Jen and Macy's relationship into chaos.
What The Cake does best is present a series of ethical dilemmas without easy answers. It's not about baking the cake in Della's mind; it's about whether she should compromise her religious beliefs for something she disagrees with. When Macy and Jen start fighting, Brunstetter excellently depicts a relationship on the brink over the way people were raised. In real life, these arguments aren't black and white, and they aren't onstage, either.
Brunstetter, director Jennifer Chambers, and Rupp are miraculous in humanizing Della, a character that so many audience members would likely look on with as much disdain as Macy does. It's a big-hearted, deeply sad, and very multifaceted portrait of a woman on the brink of a big change, who doesn't know if she can make it. When Manhattan Theatre Club brings The Cake to New York in February, Debra Jo Rupp better be its headliner.