Barley Sheaf Tells Interesting Story with GREY GARDENS

by Walter Bender

Abigail Rutt (Edie Beale) and Denise Webb (Edith Bouvier Beale) in a scene from Barley Sheaf Players' GREY GARDENS, running in Lionville, PA through March 31.

Anyone over the age of 40 may remember the story of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The story was first sensationalized in a National Enquirer article in the early 70’s, and the story was picked up by New York Magazine some time later. It became the subject of a movie that was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1976. From this rather tawdry upbringing arises the musical, which tells its own story…a quasi-historical musical which really focuses on the dysfunctional relationship between mother and daughter.

Act I of GREY GARDENS takes place in 1941, at (where else?) Grey Gardens, the home of Edith Bouvier Beale (Denise Webb), who is preparing for a party celebrating her daughter Edie’s (Abigail Rutt) impending engagement to Joseph Kennedy, Jr. (James Alexander.) “Big” Edie is joined by her pianist, Gould (Paul Hayward), as they prepare a song list for the party. Little Edie resents her mother’s attempt to steal the spotlight, but loves her mother enough to allow Big Edie some attention. But the manipulative mother cannot allow her daughter to be happy.

Act II flashes forward to 1973…Big Edie and Little Edie are living in squalor with 52 cats, 3 raccoons and assorted fleas, Grey Gardens falling apart, no heat or water, and the Health Authority threatening to condemn the property. Little Edie is taking care of her mother, even as she longs to get away…but her fears as well as her devotion keep her from leaving.

The current production of this musical is well done. The characters in Act I are all appropriate for the time period, with just a hint of stereotype (not overdone, and entirely appropriate for the storyline.) Denise Webb as Big Edie is self-possessed and manipulative, and Abigail Rutt as Little Edie tries to love her mother, but eventually gives in to the resentment. James Alexander as the young Kennedy is typical New England royalty, and has a great grasp on the accent as well as the mannerisms of one bred for greatness.

The contrasting story in Act II is accentuated by the actors, especially the older Big Edie (Stevie Tagye), who is needy, manipulative, and scornful of her daughter. Little Edie (Deb Topka) tries alternately to accept and reject her mother, especially when she sees her mother showing favoritism to a local delivery boy Jerry (James Alexander again.) The interaction between these two women works in many ways, but makes the audience wonder why Little Edie puts up with so much.

Many of the cast members double in this production, either playing next-generation family retainers (Scott Yannick as Brooks Sr. and Jr.), other characters, or Ensemble as needed. They are all to be commended for handling this well.

The music of this production is done well, but some of the harmonies are so close it sometimes sounds as if the cast and orchestra are not together. I have to say, however, that this is a shortcoming of the score and not the actors. The set is nicely done, portraying both the opulent Grey Gardens of the 40’s and the squalor of the 70’s.

GREY GARDENS is not a typical “feel good” musical. The subject matter is borderline depressing, the music keeping in line with the story line, and the plot is threadbare at times, making the audience question why in many cases. However, the cast and crew of Barley Sheaf Players has done a fine job of bringing this musical to life.

Book by Doug Wright
Music by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie
Directed by Michele Bolay
March 9-31, 2012
Barley Sheaf Players
810 N. Whitford Road
Lionville, PA 19353

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