Wasatch Theatre Company’s latest production, the musical Grey Gardens should not be missed! First off, it’s the Utah premiere of this award-winning musical that first performed on Broadway in 2006. Secondly, it’s based on the true story of Jacquelyn Kennedy Onassis’ aunt and cousin. Two women, whom after an all-too brief life of privilege and fortune, find themselves living in a dilapidated mansion that is the home of hundreds of cats, and in conditions that were deemed, in 1972, “unfit for human living.” Finally, you need to see it because it’s GREAT, and a true tour-de-force for leading lady, Jennifer Perry Hughes.
Hughes plays two roles, Edith Bouvier Beale in the first act, then “Little” Edie Beale in the second act. Her transformation between the two characters involves more than just a costume change. As Edith, she’s statuesque and commands the stage like the queen of the castle. As Little Edie, she slouches and juts her hips, completely transforming her physicality from the powerful to the submissive. It’s an amazing transformation to watch, and Hughes makes it seem completely natural.
The role of aged, bedridden Edith Bouvier Beale in the second act is performed beautifully by Sallie Cooper. Her performance shows us an Edith that is still manipulating and controlling her daughter after 30 years. And the more Edie tries to pull away, the more Edith pulls her back. Playing a domineering and manipulative character can be difficult enough, but when you can’t get out of bed to physically dominate someone, it becomes a thousand times more difficult, yet Cooper effortlessly commands the stage and lets us see her vulnerable side.
Darryl Stamp plays Brooks, the Bouvier-Beales’ ever put-upon butler, then, in the second act plays Brooks Jr., a handyman, still looking after Grey Gardens. Stamp stands out, however in his scenes with the ensemble, bringing a warmth and charm to the stage in his chorus numbers. Although, in my opinion, his greatest moment was his quiet dignity in the face of Edith’s rendition of “Hominy Grits,” an overtly racist song.
Luke Monday gives quiet dignity to the role of Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Edie’s fiance, in the first half of the play and then transforms into an everyday 1970s teenager, Jerry, in the second act. In each role he is able to play a stabilizing figure in Edie and Edith’s relationship.
Eric McGraw gives a strong performance as George Gould Strong, Edith’s accompanist and arranger, in the first half. He lets us into his character and gives so much on stage. In the second half, he takes part in the chorus roles, and I always found myself watching him, particularly when he plays a cat (along with the rest of the ensemble) in the song, “Entering Grey Gardens.”
Ali Goldsmith, plays the young Edie Beale in the first half, and although I found her performance both strong and endearing, I felt her choice not to raise her emotions to hysterics whenever she dealt with her mother didn’t read true to the character. Considering she’s a Long Island debutante, raised in privilege, with a manipulative mother and domineering, though absent, father, I think she would have chosen to get hysterical when she wanted to get her way. However, as I said, she otherwise gives a wonderful performance, her scenes especially with Joe and her Grandfather were well played and beautiful.
David Tucker, who played both Major Bouvier and later the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale gives a wonderful performance, though he did seem to struggle with his dialogue a bit at the beginning. However, once he got going, his character quickly resolved and became delightful.
Rounding out the cast are real-life sisters Grace and Ella Pilling playing the very young Jackie and Lee Bouvier in the first half, the participate in chorus numbers in the second half. Both are young and eager in their parts, and have a lot of fun in their respective roles. Jackie Bouvier is a wonderfully ironic character to have in the play, particularly at this moment in time, at the engagement party of her cousin Edie to Joseph Kennedy. For although Edie and Joseph ultimately did not marry, Jackie would grow up and marry Joe’s younger brother John. The destiny that could have been Edie’s, to be first lady, happens instead to Jackie.
Now this is a musical, and yet we’re in the very very intimate setting of the Rose Wagner Studio Theater, so how does that work? Wonderfully, I’m happy to report. The music is played live by three musicians, Rick Rea (who is also the Music Director) primarily on keyboards, Julianna Boulter on Piano and Natsumi Higashi on percussion. And while the performers sang without (gasp!) body mics, they were able to sing over the band so we rarely missed a word. It helped that the band was placed behind this actors, partially obscured by a scrim wall built into the set.
The set, designed by Kit Anderton, is wonderful in both its simplicity and its details. The walls are painted black with obvious items, such as the french doors photgraphs, and stairway standing out like representations of the manor without us having to see the actual mansion. Linda Eyring’s costumes are perfect for the era and she particularly nails Edie’s famous 1970s outfit that she modeled in the documentary filmed about Grey Gardens (first picture above).
Director George Plautz has definitely created a solid production with his cast and crew, and Grey Gardens is a wonderful night at the Theater.
Grey Gardens performs September 8 – 24 on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm with two matinee performances on Saturday, September 17 and Saturday September 24, both at 2pm. And, if you attend the Saturday night performances on either September 17 or September 24, stick around for a special After-hours Cabaret. It’s part of your ticket, and well worth sticking around for. For more information, visit www.wasatchtheatre.org