Book by Doug Wright. Music by Scott Frankel. Lyrics by Michael Korie. Directed by Ryan Mooney. Presented by Fighting Chance Productions. At the Jericho Arts Centre on Thursday, May 3. Continues until May 19
Grey Gardens is one oddly built musical. To pull it off, you’d need an artistic team capable of phenomenal stylishness and lead performers with stellar levels of charisma and depth. That’s not what you get in this interpretation from Fighting Chance Productions.
The musical is based on the 1975 documentary of the same name, which focuses on the real-life aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Mother and daughter are both named Edith Beale, although in the musical the daughter is known as Edie. In 1971, the National Enquirer found these two formerly wealthy socialites living in squalor in their run-down home in a affluent quarter of East Hampton. The musical describes their cat-, flea-, and raccoon-infested house as a 28-room litter box.
In Act 1, which is set in 1941, Edith is a self-indulgent bohemian and debutante Edie is known by the nickname Body Beautiful Beale. Edie is determined to get away from her overbearing mother, but the two are so enmeshed that marriages and independent lives don’t stand a chance. As a pair, they become increasingly isolated and eccentric. By Act 2 (1973), Edith is virtually bedridden and Edie repurposes various forms of clothing to create turbans to conceal her baldness.
The show’s content and structure are almost as eccentric as its subjects. Off the top, songs such as “Marry Well” feel like standard musical fare, but “Hominy Grits” is deliberately racist and, in Act 2, “The House We Live In” and “Choose to Be Happy” both skewer a rotting American dream. Act 1 eventually finds a plot in Edie’s near-engagement to Joseph Kennedy Jr., but Act 2 contains virtually no action.
Lacking narrative momentum, Grey Gardens is all about character, mood, and style.
Unfortunately, this production’s set design (Matthew Bissett and director Ryan Mooney) looks like hell. I understand that they were working with a reduced budget, but I’d rather look at a bare stage than at yards and yards of tacky lattice. If you don’t have the dough for big sets, go for simplicity—and focus.
Under Mooney’s direction, the parody numbers lack the requisite snap.
In the uneven cast, Cathy Wilmot, who plays Edith in Act 1 and Edie in Act 2, sports an atrocious accent that blends East London with East Hampton. That said, Wilmot delivers some of the goods—the wacky joy of “Hominy Grits”, the aching depression of “Another Winter in a Summer Town”. In a less showy role and performance, Sue Sparlin, who plays Edith in the second half, accesses even more of Grey Gardens’ essential melancholy; for me, her delivery of the pathetic ballad “Jerry Likes My Corn” was a highlight of the evening. Ranae Miller, Act 1’s Edie, drives her character effectively towards desperation.
Mooney fails to make the emotional undertow as strong or consistent as it needs to be, however. Carman J. Price, who plays George, Edith’s gay lapdog, has a lovely light tenor, but he misses his character’s acidic humour. It’s hard to hear both him and Hal Rogers, who plays Brooks, the butler.
There are things to like in this Grey Gardens, but you’ve got to pick your way through the pile.