Theater Review

Theater review: Clever staging can't salvage flawed 'Grey Gardens'

CorrespondentJune 16, 2014 

Jeri Lynn Schulke as Little Edie Beale in The Justice Theater Project’s production of “Grey Gardens.”

CURTIS BROWN PHOTOGRAPHY — CURTIS BROWN PHOTOGRAPHY

  • Details

    What: “Grey Gardens,” presented by the Justice Theater Project

    Where: Clare Hall, St. Francis of Assisi Church, 11401 Leesville Road, Raleigh

    When: 8 p.m. June 20-21 and 26-28; 2 p.m. June 22 and 29

    Tickets: $15-$20

    Info: 919-264-7089 or

    thejusticetheaterproject.org

The Justice Theater Project’s season about health care ends with the Broadway musical “Grey Gardens,” the story of a turbulent relationship evolving into poorly managed elder care. The company has put a lot of effort into its staging, but flaws in the material and production hinder appreciation of the message.

The musical is based on the 1975 documentary about “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, the high society mother and daughter (aunt and cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis). They had fallen into poverty-stricken squalor by the early 1970s after Little Edie reluctantly came back home to care for her aging mother.

Composer Scott Frankel and scriptwriter Doug Wright’s first act takes place in 1941 when Little Edie is dating Joseph Kennedy Jr. Big Edie squelches their impending marriage, pushing Little Edie to leave home. The act is full of light comedy songs and humorous characters, apparently to parody the fantasy life of the rich.

The darker, more serious second act mostly reproduces the documentary’s scenes depicting the pair’s mental deterioration and codependency. Unfortunately, the film’s oddly fascinating random babblings do not make compelling theater, turning the second act into an uninvolving endurance test. The musical missed the chance to show more of what happened between the two acts instead of slavishly recreating much of the film.

The production’s first act is charmingly entertaining in director Jerry Sipp’s confident, clever staging. Jess Barbour’s perky Little Edie and Eric Morales’ dapper Joseph Kennedy Jr. are a fine pairing, while Dan Mason’s booming voice and expert timing make “Major” Bouvier a delight. Dexter Morgan amuses as the ever-suffering butler, Brooks Sr.

Jeri Lynn Schulke plays the first act’s Big Edie with acceptable flair but greatly impresses with her quirky, unstable Little Edie in the second, despite a voice not fully equipped for the score’s demands. Alison Lawrence faithfully reproduces the whiny cadences of the second act’s Big Edie but rarely varies the characterization.

The amplification system is a major flaw. Both Schulke and Lawrence yell most of their lines, becoming painfully unintelligible, exacerbated by their voices coming disorientingly from speakers behind the audience.

Those familiar with the film will get the most out of the production, able to fill in what is missing or unheard.

Dicks: music_theater@lycos.com

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