Theatre review: Grey Gardens will no doubt appeal to those already fascinated by its story

After watching the Fighting Chance Productions presentation of Grey Gardens last night I was tempted to make some joke about the inhabitants vying for their own episode of Hoarders.  But after spending most of my morning watching the 1975 documentary on which much of act two is based, I realised that sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up.

In the early 70s, the decrepit world of former socialites, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little Edie”, was exposed.  Making headlines across the United States and abroad, the once wealthy women with their more famous familial connections to the Kennedys shocked the nation as they were discovered living among dozens of feral cats and mounds of garbage, without running water and infested by fleas.  But what the media reports and the subsequent documentary failed to explore were the circumstances that led these women to this point.

In act one, Doug Wright’s book attempts to fill in some of that history with an imagined time where Edith Bouvier Beale is about to throw an engagement party for her daughter, known as “Little Edie” in their palatial East Hampton homestead.  As her own failed marriage crumbles around her beneath the weight of an over-bearing father, Edith sabotages her daughter’s possibility of life in the White House.

As Little Edie’s chances at life are snatched away, these realities are in great contrast to both Cathy Wilmot’s performance as the mother and the cheery nature of the music and lyrics from Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. While Wilmot proves herself in the singing department, she is not quite as successful with her accent and in revealing the pain that lies just below her happy and privileged life.  As Little Edie in the first act, Ranae Miller comes across as petulant but does help set us up for a second act where Little Edie returns to Grey Gardens and her mother.

In act two, we find ourselves in 1973 with Little Edie (now played by Wilmot) back at Grey Gardens living among the filth of thirty years and trying to care for her equally eccentric mother, played courageously by Sue Sparlin.

There are many moments in act two seemingly plucked from the documentary and after having now watched it, gave me a far better appreciation for the second half.  But while there are a few moments in act two where we are drawn deeply into these women’s lives, if you’re not prepared for the over-the-top eccentricities that are revealed in the documentary it can come across as pure camp.  Sparlin manages to be simultaneously poignant and funny in the ridiculously titled “Jerry Likes My Corn” although at times it felt a little too far tilted to its funny side but the “The House We Live In” is reduced to a strange visit by Sir Andrew’s jellicoe cats.

The dynamic between mother and daughter is most heart-felt when they aren’t singing; problem is this is a musical.  With the exception of the beautiful “Around the World”, the music is unremarkable and does little to propel the story or underscore the emotions of its characters.

Lucas Blaney, Sue Sparlin and Cathy Wilmot in the Fighting Chance Productions presentation of Grey Gardens.
Lucas Blaney, Sue Sparlin and Cathy Wilmot in the Fighting Chance Productions presentation of Grey Gardens.

The transition between the excesses of 1941 and the decay of 1973 is also at the crux of the show.  Where the appalling surroundings of act two should be heightened by the opulence of act one, we get little of that contrast from the set design and costumes.  I realize that budget was a problem, as acknowledged by director Ryan Mooney at the top of the show, but without that disparity we are missing a key piece.

As I mused last night after the show, this musical version of Grey Gardens will no doubt appeal to those who already have a deeper knowledge and fascination with the story on which it is based.  For the rest, I say you’ll do yourself a huge favour in watching the documentary before venturing off to the Jericho Arts Centre.

3 Out of 5 Stars Grey Gardens

Book by Doug Wright with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie.  Directed by Ryan Mooney.  A Fighting Chance Productions presentation.  On stage at the Jericho Arts Centre through May 19, 2012.  Visit http://fightingchanceproductions.ca for tickets and information.

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