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    In this family, the upstaging never stops

    Will Swenson (center) plays the John Barrymore-ish Tony Cavendish in “The Royal Family of Broadway.”
    Daniel Rader
    Will Swenson (center) plays the John Barrymore-ish Tony Cavendish in “The Royal Family of Broadway.”

    PITTSFIELD — From stage to screen to stream, the vanity, narcissism, and general egotism of actors have always been a reliable source of amusement, especially in the hands of the right satirists.

    And when a glittering constellation of self-absorbed thespians are gathered within a single family, one could hardly conceive of a more target-rich environment. George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber certainly thought so.

    Wickedly inspired by the Barrymores, the most famous acting clan of the 20th century, Kaufman and Ferber teamed up to write “The Royal Family,’’ which premiered in 1927 and later led to a film version and, still later, TV adaptations. To those ranks can now be added a musical, “The Royal Family of Broadway,’’ which is receiving its world premiere at Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage Company.


    Directed by John Rando and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin, “The Royal Family of Broadway’’ turns the spotlight on the theatrical Cavendishes — and don’t even think of taking that spotlight away from them. Don’t assume that their performance instincts will abate at home, either. They’re a family that takes that “All the world’s a stage’’ stuff very literally.

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    The musical stars Will Swenson as the John Barrymore-ish Tony Cavendish, a carousing stage actor turned film star who suddenly develops an interest in a life of spiritual contemplation after he is caught up in a scandal; Laura Michelle Kelly as his sister, Julie, a Broadway leading lady, pondering whether to say yes to the wealthy former flame (Alan H. Green) who wants to marry her and move to Brazil; and the inimitable Harriet Harris — who is certainly royalty in my book — as the family matriarch, Fanny. (You may recall Harris’s brilliant performance on NBC’s “Frasier’’ as Bebe, Frasier’s Machiavellian agent.) Chip Zien plays their beleaguered producer and Holly Ann Butler portrays their “domestic stage-manager.’’

    The Cavendishes also include Julie’s daughter, Gwen (Hayley Podschun), who, to her family’s consternation, declares she plans to quit the stage and marry dull, decent, non-theatrical Perry (A.J. Shively); Fanny’s brother, Herbert (Arnie Burton, very funny), whose acting is as bad as his toupee; and his wife, Kitty (Kathryn Fitzgerald), also prone to chewing the scenery. In one hilarious scene, Tony demands that everyone look at him because he has an important announcement to make, but — ingrained with a ham’s tendency to “cheat out’’ while onstage so the audience’s eyes will remain fixed upon them — the Cavendishes can’t bring themselves to fully turn their faces toward him.

    Immersing us in the quandaries, real or manufactured, of the decidedly eccentric Cavendishes, “The Royal Family of Broadway’’ is a witty and breezily enjoyable excursion into showbiz lunacy, with a lavishly detailed set by Alexander Dodge and eye-catching costumes by Alejo Vietti. However, the musical does not quite take us away on a magical ride the way earlier Rando-Bergasse collaborations did at Barrington Stage: “On the Town,’’ “Guys and Dolls,’’ or their sensational production of “The Pirates of Penzance’’ two summers ago.

    “The Royal Family of Broadway’’ is largely satisfying but not yet transporting, partly because, at least on first hearing, Finn’s score is not as distinctive as the ones he composed for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’’ (which premiered at Barrington Stage before transferring to Broadway in 2005) and “Falsettos’’ (which was revived on Broadway in 2016).


    Swenson delivers an entertaining portrayal of Tony Cavendish, though Swenson is essentially reprising aspects of his bravura swashbuckling as the Pirate King in “Pirates of Penzance.’’ As Julie, Kelly makes the most of the opportunity to play a character with a spikier personality and more comic potential than Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, whom she portrayed in 2014’s “Finding Neverland’’ at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater, or Anna Leonowens, whom Kelly played last year in “The King and I’’ at the Boston Opera House.

    But it is Harriet Harris who gives “The Royal Family of Broadway’’ much of its zing. There may be someone somewhere who can say a line like “Marriage isn’t a career. It’s an incident’’ more perfectly than Harris does, but I can’t imagine who that would be.


    Book by Rachel Sheinkin. Music and lyrics by William Finn. Based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber and an original adaptation by Richard Greenberg. Directed by John Rando. Choreographed by Joshua Bergasse. Presented by Barrington Stage Company. At Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, Pittsfield, through July 7. Tickets: $15-$75, 413-236-8888,

    Don Aucoin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin