The show finally goes on

By David Watts Barton, Sacramento News and Review, August 18, 2013

It’s a hot, humid and, yes, rainy June day in midtown Manhattan, and inside a large room on West 28th Street, you can feel the heat coming off the bodies flying around the space like clothes in a dryer. But the bodies are rotating in two concentric circles, running in opposite directions.

Walter Kennedy looks on. He sees into the apparent chaos, locates the problem and nods, making notes. Kennedy knows what they should be doing, but they’re not quite doing it yet. Just keeping these 17 people from bumping into each other is a challenge in this limited space.

Kennedy waves his hand to stop the music and steps into the middle of the lithe, energetic group, moving his own arms and giving instructions.

“I want you to throw your hands all the way up and circle down—really go all the way up,” he instructs. He gives one dancer another movement tip and smiles back at his younger brother, Patrick, who has been sitting to his left. Then, he sits back down and signals the pianist to start again.

This looks like chaos, but it is chaos with a purpose: Kennedy is directing a dance sequence he choreographed for the new musical Swiss Family Robinson. The show, based on the 1812 book by Johann David Wyss, opened July 9, in a West 42nd Street theater, for a limited performance run.

The run is part of the annual New York Musical Theatre Festival, a showcase of 50 new musicals that have been in development in cities around the country—and beyond. Produced at the festival, shows have the potential to be seen by the New York producers and directors and even stars who could help bring them to the Great White Way.

It’s happened before. Previous shows in the festival’s previous nine years—productions such as Altar Boyz and Next to Normal—have gone on to win three Tony Awards and even a Pulitzer Prize.

For anyone who has had the creative guts and sheer stamina to compose a musical, a showing at The New York Musical Theatre Festival is just steps from a dream come true.

Swiss Family Robinson, the musical, is one such dream. It is the dream of another family: the Kennedys of Sacramento. The show is the creation of three brothers—John, Walter and Patrick—who first conceived of the show while still in high school in Sacramento, in the late ’70s.

More than 30 years later, that dream has come true. But first, there is a lot of work to do.

The summer of ‘78
The Kennedy brothers grew up on musicals. Their late dad, Walter Kennedy Jr., was an insurance executive and union drummer who played gigs around town, including one at the old Sacramento Inn.

Says Walter, “I remember my parents going to see Ethel Merman do Gypsy in San Francisco. We loved it, too.”

Walter fell for theater first, but over time, all three of the brothers discovered an aspect that appealed: John found composing and attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Walter studied dance at The Juilliard School in New York and toured for years with the Lewitzky Dance Company in Los Angeles. Patrick, meanwhile, realized he wanted to write and direct and moved first to Los Angeles and then later, to New York City.

During rehearsal, Patrick, the “baby” of the family at 53—Walter is 57 and John is 58—has been sitting quietly to Walter’s left, watching the dancers rehearse. The choreography is Walter’s, so Patrick is taking a backseat.

But Patrick is the co-writer (with composer John) of the book for Swiss Family Robinson, and its director. And although all have a stake in the show, Patrick’s are professional: He has lived in New York for 20 years, fighting the epic struggle demanded of playwrights here, writing nearly a dozen plays himself. The anxiety over whether this show will do well is written all over his face.

For John, the eldest and quietest of the three, this realization of a childhood dream is the cherry on top of a successful career managing hotels. When a job change left him with a lot of time on his hands and no imperative to work, Patrick suggested he go back to “that musical we had played around with” in the late ’70s while they were student mentors in the Musical Comedy Workshop of the San Juan Unified School District.

Then, the head of the program, Mira Loma High School theater teacher Chuck Evans, had asked the boys, who had already done small musicals, to come up with something for the following summer of 1978.

“We sat around for months trying to come up with an idea,” Patrick says. “But months passed, and we got nothing.”

John picks up the story: “One day in the spring, it was getting really close to when we were supposed to have something, and we were sitting in one of our bedrooms at the house, and our dad poked his head in the door and just said, ’Swiss Family Robinson,’ and disappeared.”

The brothers instantly grasped the concept, and, careful to steer clear of Disney’s 1960 movie version (the second film version of the novel, which is in the public domain), the brothers launched into a creative frenzy, and by the start of the summer program, they had created a new musical for a run at El Camino Fundamental High School.

But when the curtain came down, the sheet music and book for Swiss Family Robinson went into a drawer, right along with the Broadway dreams of the Kennedy brothers. And life went on.

The big time
Now, 35 years after their musical made its Sacramento debut, this new version of Swiss Family Robinson—with only about 25 percent of the Kennedy’s original show—features a budget that’s considerably bigger than the one they had in 1978. The Kennedy’s won’t give an exact number, but say that “shows of this sort” can cost upwards of $75,000 to produce.

But while they have more money, there are constraints: primarily time. Because this is a short festival run, the production, once designed, is limited by various Equity contracts to four weeks of rehearsal. And they can only rehearse five hours a day during that time. The pressure is on.

Emily Shoolin as Zizi gets her point across to James Patterson’s Monsieur Spoo in Swiss Family Robinson.
PHOTO BY SETH WALTERS

But the Kennedys are using their budget well, and even in rehearsal, it’s easy to see where all that money is going: professionals. The Kennedys and their general manager, Suellen Vance, have been sure to spend the money on a 17-member cast and five-piece band that are fiercely professional.

Among the performers are Emily Shoolin, who just came from Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark; Patrick Oliver Jones, back from the first national tour of The Addams Family; Barbara Tirrell, who was in Broadway megahits Wicked, Annie and Fiddler on the Roof; and James Patterson, from Beauty and the Beast.

This is, after all, New York City, where the best musical-theater performers live and work and throw their bodies and souls completely into their performances. This is the big time.

Upon hearing their voices massed together to deliver his clever, intricate and unmistakably Broadway-bound melodies, the generally quiet John Kennedy says simply, “Amazing.”

“This is really a huge cast,” says Michael Lorz, who plays the nerdy son Ernst with great energy and comic timing. “I just came from doing Moisés Kaufman’s [Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde], which has four actors. It’s been a big shift, but I love it.”

With 17 performers, a five-piece band, an assistant stage manager, a four-person crew, a wardrobe manager, a soundboard operator, a lighting-board operator and two spotlight operators, even putting a show as modest as Swiss Family Robinson on a stage for an audience is a remarkably complex undertaking.

“It’s all about the people you get,” says Walter. “We got some amazing professionals, and you can see it on the stage and off.”

Vance brought them Denise Wilcox as stage manager, who keeps all those moving parts from bumping into each other.

With 20 years of stage management under her belt, Wilcox runs the rehearsals literally down to the minute, calling out instructions to the cast, so that the Kennedys can fulfill their creative roles without having to manage traffic.

“It would not be happening without her,” says John.

The Kennedys’ Swiss Family Robinson is a very traditional musical. If one did not know beforehand, it’d be easy to mistake the production for a revival of a ’50s classic, part Gilbert and Sullivan, part Rodgers & Hammerstein, perfect for Broadway.

Which is not to say it is simple music. The vocal arrangements, by John with musical director Matt Aument, are powerful by any standard, and occasionally downright dazzling.

“Ultimately, this is really John’s thing,” says Walter. “If anything is exceptional about the show, it’s the music and lyrics. I still get excited hearing the songs. It’s a smart and sophisticated score. The rest of the show is in service of that.”

In fact, the show’s first performance, on July 9, even attracted a representative from the Disney Theatrical Group to take a look. Given Disney’s own classic feature film of the story, the company is more than a little curious about what these upstarts might have done with the original book.

Certainly, they’ll be intrigued by what they see, as the show comes off virtually without a hitch, the cast’s powerful voices filling the 160-seat performance space, the nearly capacity audience—which includes Walter’s old Juilliard classmate and Broadway superstar Bebe Neuwirth—laughing through the show’s broad comedy and cheering at its full-throated climax.

Wilcox is thrilled with the results, particularly since the entire “tech” process—putting the cast into costumes and onto the stage, each with a head mic, getting the band into its corner, balancing the sound, setting the lights, planning 200 lighting cues—was done on Tuesday afternoon, the day before the first performance.

“We usually have at least a week to do that,” Wilcox says. “To have an opening go off the way that did last night is just incredible.”

At the cast party on the roof garden of the chic Yotel hotel, around the corner from the theater, the Kennedy brothers relax and chat with the cast members.

The brothers themselves are quiet. John, reticent at the best of times, was said to have been literally sick with anxiety before the performance, and he has tucked himself away somewhere, while Patrick, who could clearly use some sleep, declares himself “relieved” and “happy that things came off so well.”

Walter, the most talkative Kennedy, is thrilled. He is, in some ways, the one with the least skin in the game, after a lifelong career in dance. But he is clearly rooting for the family.

Coming to town to root for the brothers is their biggest fan: their mother, Barbara Kennedy, 85.

“It’s such a thrill, I can’t tell you,” she says, by phone from California. Retired now from a career as a teacher and principal in the San Juan Unified School District, she says that her sons got their talents from her late husband, not her.

“I can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” Barbara says.

But she has always been a great audience member, and she plans to soak it all in when she’s in New York.

“I’ll see it Saturday, Sunday and whenever the last [show] is. … I might not ever have a chance to see it again—I’m going to take advantage while I can,” she says.

With any luck, there will be many more chances for her and other theatergoers around the country to see Swiss Family Robinson.

Time will tell.