Theatrical royalty play theatrical royalty as Will Geer’s own “royal family” bring George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber’s The Royal Family to hilarious, effervescent life—with enough star power to rival those twinkling orbs shining down on the Topanga hills Theatricum Botanicum calls home.

Royal-Family at Theatricum Botanicum_7 It’s hard to believe that eighty-six years have passed since Kaufman and Ferber created the Cavendish dynasty, modeling them on the very real Barrymores, so “fresh and alive and gay and young” are Geer matriarch Ellen (Will’s daughter), her half-sister Melora Marshall, her daughter Willow, and her daughter-in-law Abby Craden as (respectively) matriarch Fanny Cavendish, daughter Julie, granddaughter Gwen, and sister-in-law Kitty Dean. Talk about life imitating art imitating life!

Director Susan Angelo and her stellar cast set a just-right buoyant mood from the get-go as they introduce us to a multi-member family every bit as endearingly wacky as the Vanderhof-Sycamores of Kaufman and Hart’s 1936 classic You Can’t Take It With You, albeit considerably better off financially, this being the pre-crash Roaring Twenties and the Cavindishes having achieved considerably more fame and fortune than the un-and-underemployed characters of The Royal Family’s more frequently produced sister comedy.

Royal-Family at Theatricum Botanicum_8 If ever a family could be said to eat, breathe, and live the actor’s life, the Cavendishes are that clan. Stage legend Fanny is about to go on the road again after a two-year illness, daughter Julie reigns as a Broadway superstar, son Tony (Aaron Hendry) has become a Hollywood heartthrob, and granddaughter Gwen is a talented Broadway ingénue. Fanny’s 60something brother Herbert Dean (Tim Halligan) is still trodding the boards as well (and convincing himself that under the right pink lights, he can still pass for thirty-five), and Herbert’s wife Kitty will do just about anything to prove that you don’t need talent to be a star.

Like their You Can’t Take It With You counterparts, the Cavendishes find their lives turned upside-down when outsiders invade their midst. For the Vanderhof-Sycamores, it was the arrival of the moneyed Kirbys at their Columbia University-adjacent home that set their world spinning out of orbit. For the Cavendish brood, it’s the stodgy business world of Julie’s beau, international businessman Gilbert Marshall (Bill Gunther), and the high society universe of Gwen’s fiancé, Perry Stewart (Andy Stokan), that threaten to bore the living daylights out of women who’ve gotten used to living their lives in the intoxicating hours after the lights come up on Broadway.

Royal-Family at Theatricum Botanicum_10b Will Fanny’s failing health allow her to tour the country one more time? Will native New Yorker Julie be able to adapt to a life on a South American rancho with her nearest neighbor thirty miles away? Will marriage to Perry and the birth of their child somehow manage to take the place of Gwen’s life upon the wicked stage? Will Tony decide to give up the glamour of Hollywood celebrity and return to the Great White Way? Will Herbert and Kitty realize that with youth a thing of the past and talent a thing of never, their best bet for a show biz gig is to take their act to vaudeville?

Royal-Family at Theatricum Botanicum_9 These are the questions asked and answered in Kaufman and Ferber’s affectionate, nostalgic valentine to those for whom Theater and Life are one and the same. (One of the play’s funniest moments comes when Gwen declares, “I’m through with the stage. I’m never going to act again!”—blissfully unaware that she is, at that very moment, acting!”)

No one will get a bigger kick out of The Royal Family than theater people, but you don’t have to have been an actor to fall in love with the Cavendish clan, particularly as portrayed by the Geers and their Theatricum Botanicum family of longtime collaborators.

The female trifecta embodying three generations of Cavendish women simply could not be more marvelous, Ellen Geer giving Fanny elegance, grandeur, and heart, Marshall unleashing her inner diva to perfection as Julie, and Willow Geer making Gwen as adorably appealing as can be. Hendry is dashingly John Barrymore-esque as Tony, Halligan delightfully delusional as Herbert, and Craden deliciously ditzy as Kitty. The terrific Alan Blumenfeld is the proverbial bull in the china shop as brash theatrical agent Oscar Wolfe, while Gunther and Stokan do equally fine work as men who love Cavendish women without truly understanding what makes them tick.

Royal-Family at Theatricum Botanicum_6 Kaufman and Ferber fill the stage with multiple cameo roles, from those brought to ebullient life by Alexander Aguila as Tony’s burly trainer McDermott, Earnestine Phillips as the Cavendishes’ spirited maid Della, and Frank Weidner as ever-on-the-move servant Jo, to smaller roles played with panache by Mannette Antill (Miss Peake), Jessica Butenshon (Servant), Edward Gallogly (Hall Boy 1), Dane Oliver (Hall Boy 2), Setareki Wainquinto (Chauffeur, Gunga), and Christopher Weir (Cook).

The open-air Theatricum Botanicum stage has been transformed into the Cavendishes’ elegantly furnished two-story Manhattan apartment, expertly lit by Zach Moore and his assistant Lauren Tietz.

Royal-Family at Theatricum Botanicum_11 Costume design master Shon LeBlanc outfits each character in ways suiting both the era and the characters wearing them. (Kitty’s bold and brassy gowns and hats are a particular treat.) Properties master Ashton Williams has filled the stage with abundant 1920s paraphernalia, theatrical and otherwise, while sound designer Ian Flanders provides just the right bright, bouncy soundtrack.

Christopher W. Jones is assistant director. Kim Cameron is stage manager and Morgan Dingle assistant stage manager.

I first fell for The Royal Family when it played at the Ahmanson in 2004. Though nine years is a long time between revivals, with Theatricum Botanicum’s very own Royal Family starring in this Grade-A production, it has been well worth the wait.

The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga.

–Steven Stanley
August 18, 2013
Photos: Miriam Geer

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