Players Club of Swarthmore opened this weekend with their production of GREY GARDENS, directed by Joseph Southard. A musical tale about the eccentric life of Edith Bouvier Beale, cousin to beloved former first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and her daughter, “little Edie” Beale.
This haunting tale of lost love and broken dreams opens in 1941 at the engagement party of little Edie, adroitly portrayed by Allison Gerrard, in the show’s titled East Hampton estate. Shortly after meeting her daughter’s fiancé complete with appropriate Boston accent, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, (artfully played by Art Bookout) interfering mom frightens her suitor away with sordid tales of little Edie’s naïve indiscretions as a youth. After learning of her father’s abandonment, Young Edie flees from her overbearing attention-seeking mother to the Big Apple to pursue dreams of stardom.
Fast forward to 1973 for the second act when we meet an elderly Edith, and a now overly-privileged, inappropriate and disillusioned little Edie, tragically rushing towards old age, and still under the manipulative grip of her mother. The estate Grey Gardens is now a shell of its former magnificence, grossly neglected by not just mother and daughter, but philandering father J.V. “Major” Bouvier (Bruce Nutting) and sons. The only warmth in the house comes from the mangy fur from the Beale’s numerous felines occupying the home. Set designer and scene artist Jolene Petrowski left no detail forgotten with her dilapidated, urine soaked Grey Gardens of the second act. The set was as haunting as the players on stage were talented.
This haunting true-to-life story gives the audience a glimpse of what life was like for this overly-romanticized family, with all their tragic flaws and fairytales. The fact that this family still resonates with our pop culture today, enough to make a Tony-award winning Broadway musical out of pure dysfunction, speaks volumes about their impact on America. One wonders, why? Is it the same fascination and obsession we carry for mobsters? We glamorize their flaws, dismiss their infidelities, and even deny their criminal behavior. And yet we watch with fascination, we engage in the gossip, and we still fawn over their beauty and intrigue, present company included.
What the show lacks in plot, it almost entirely makes up for in music. Besides a few repetitive numbers, the music is as beautifully tragic as its characters. Claudia Carlsson’s Edie was a combination of Gloria Swanson and Debbie Reynolds, with a powerful voice and plenty of presence. From her strong opening with “The Girl Who Has Everything,” to her melodious “Around the World,” we can’t help but empathize with this tragic broken-heart of a woman. Little Edie’s desperation in the favorite “Daddy’s Girl” poured out of actress Gerard beautifully. Surprisingly an accountant by day, I think the actress has missed her calling. Stage vet Paul Weagraff is delightful as the “imported” black sheep of the family George Gould Strong. He struck me as part Tennessee Williams, part Barry Manilow. I enjoyed Bruce Nutting as both the “Major” and a cameo Norman Vincent Peale, complete with “Choose to be Happy,” a welcoming upbeat gospel number in the second act.
Supporting cast included, the production was extremely professional, the talent above par, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, Players Club of Swarthmore has a tragic hit on its hands.
Music by Scott Frankel
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Book by Doug Wright
Directed by Joseph P. Southard
Feb 8 – 23, 2013
614 Fairview Avenue