There is a song by one of my favorite French singers, Dalida, called "Mourir Sur Scene." The song is, in a way, a French version of "What I did for Love" although it is untranslatable and goes to a further extreme. Basically, the song is a wish by a performer to die on stage, with the curtain going down and the orchestra swelling behind her. That song bears a resemblance to a 1927 classic written by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, The Royal Family, which opened at Seattle's Intiman Theatre this week. Each is about that untranslatable longing; the need performers have to be on stage above all else.
The Royal Family was inspired by the reigning theatrical family of the day, the Barrymore's: Lionel, Ethel and John. It examines the zany lives and exploits of three generations of Cavendish's as they try to ply their craft (and deal with the 'real' world). Imagine You Can't Take it With You (another play by Kaufman), peopled by Peter O'Toole's character from My Favorite Year, Norma Desmond and Maggie Smith, and you will get a fair idea of the mood and goings on. Not that this is a complete comedy. It has some surprising dramatic moments, as these people make the realizations that for them, there exists nothing but the moments that they spend on the boards. This is a family that has been born and bred to be actors, and can only take brief vacations into the 'real' world. Anybody who has ever been on stage will recognize these people and these feelings, which adds to the poignancy and the comedy.
Warner Shook, who is resigning after spending seven years as the Artistic Director of The Intiman Theatre, brought together a largely brilliant cast, who, for the most part, have the rhythm and timing necessary to pull off this zany comedy (only one actress is missing this rhythm, and serves as an obvious example as to the importance of pacing and timing). The three generations of Cavendish women are superb. Betsy Brandt, as the third generation to trod the boards, is delightful as a girl who is torn between joining the family business and having a 'normal' life with a husband and kids. Jeannie Carson (who was on Broadway in Blood Red Roses, the revival of Finian's Rainbow, and as Mary Martin's replacement in The Sound of Music) gave a stellar performance as the Grande Dame of the family, who unfortunately no longer has the stamina to do the thing she lives for.
The show belongs to Seattle favorite, Barbara Dirickson who gives an incredible performance as Julie Cavendish, the role inspired by Ethel Barrymore. It was honestly one of the best performances I have seen all year, second only to Dame Judi Dench in Amy's View (and I would love to see the two of them do a show together). The role is a tour de force, and Barbara wrings out every laugh and emotion possible, playing the first lady of the theatre, who also has to play den mother to her entire family.
The men's roles are not as developed, tending to be more caricatures than characters, but Frank Corrado was wonderfully over-the-top as Anthony Cavendish (the John Barrymore role).
Special mention must be made of Michael Ganio's set, which perfectly captured the elegance and egos of the Cavendish clan (one particularly subtle touch was a large crown hanging in the rafters which matched the moldings). Jim Ragland's music underscored the show and worked well to set the tone throughout the play.
After the show, there was a celebration and farewell party for Warner Shook, who is largely responsible for making The Intiman Theatre into the highly regarded and recognized theatre that it is. His shows at Intiman read like a best of list of recent theatre: Angels in America, Three Tall Women, How I Learned to Drive, Molly Sweeney, and Love! Valour! Compassion! to name a few. He also was the director for the premier of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Kentucky Cycle, which he also directed at the Mark Taper Forum, the Kennedy Center and on Broadway, where it got a Tony nomination.
After receiving a leather bound prompt book from his production of Angels in America (embossed with "The Great Work Begins") having September 29th declared as Warner Shook Day by the Mayor, and notification that a special fund has been set up in his name to help youths attend the theater, Warner, (and the rest of us) got a special treat. Andrea Marcovicci, a long time friend of Warner's, and Maggie in his record breaking production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at ACT in San Francisco, made a surprise appearance to serenade him. She closed the evening with a song by Shelley Markham and Judith Viorst which captured all of our wishes for Warner perfectly; "The Sweetest Nights and the Finest of Days."
The Royal Family runs at The Intiman Theatre through November 14th. It will alternate with Dear Liar starting October 15th, which will be performed by two members of The Royal Family cast, Laurence Ballard and Sally Smythe.
For more information, call the ticket office at (206) 269-1900.