Review: ‘Grey Gardens’ at StillPointe Theatre

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Grey Gardens is the latest show in StillPointe Theatre’s 2016 – 2017 season. This musical is based on the eponymous 1975 documentary about the lives of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (“Little Edie”). Grey Gardens chronicles the relationship between Big Edie and Little Edie as they go from New York socialites to isolated cat ladies, with music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie, and a book by Doug Wright. This production was produced by John Neubauer, directed by founding company members Danielle Robinette and Ryan Haase, and musically directed by company member Ben Shaver.

The atmosphere at StillPointe is delightfully set from the moment you walk in. String lights and lanterns on the ceiling combine with jaunty, old-timey pre-show music to give the feel of 1940s high society. Some audience members even dressed up to fit the period and occasion, which was a fun compliment to the performance. I instantly noticed the beautiful set designed by Ryan Haase. The space was small, but he made excellent use of it, and I appreciated his attention to detail.

Adam Cooley, Christine Dumuth, and Zoe Kanter. Photo courtesy of Stillpointe Theatre.

Grey Gardens’ two acts actually take place in two separate spaces. The second space, which I discovered later in the evening, was just as detailed as the first, though not nearly as lovely due to the dysfunction the characters have fallen into. The second set was even more impressive than the first because it cleverly pulled in elements from the first like the pink floral wallpaper and the lanterns to show that you were in the same space, but now the lanterns are ripped and the wallpaper is torn.

Costume Designer Kit Crescenzo did a fantastic job. Her designs and choices perfectly conveyed 1940’s elegance and wealth in the first act. The wigs used were well styled and clearly quality, the party dresses were beautiful, and the outfits were stunning from the glitzy hair combs down to the modest, beaded heels. It was a bit of a tragic transition into the second act where the Edies have shed their polished exteriors, but Crescenzo effectively portrayed their respective states through Big Edie’s frumpy house wear and Little Edie’s bold, eccentric scarves and leotards.

The music was so seamless it took me some time to notice that a pit band somewhere behind us was playing it all. The small band was comprised of only a piano, drums, reeds, a second keyboard, and a violin, but their sound completely filled the space and was perfectly balanced with the actors’ voices. I had no trouble hearing the lyrics while also appreciating the accompaniment. They did a wonderful job at coordinating the timing of the actual music playing with the faux piano being played on stage. Musical Director Ben Shaver did an incredible job because the ensemble sound was amazing.

The songs of Grey Gardens are mostly sung in small groups, but when they all came together for an ensemble number like “The Five-Fifteen” or “The House We Live In” I was impressed by the blend of voices and the way the filled the space. The theatre rang with their harmonies. I found the choreography, by Lauren Spencer-Harris, and the ensemble work in “Choose to Be Happy” to be very entertaining. I enjoyed how it was as if the radio performance was there in Edith’s room. Overall, I found the choreography to be very creative. Spencer-Harris made good use of a small space.

Grey Gardens had a surprisingly strong ensemble feel for a show that is strongly centered on two characters. However, the show really is about Big Edie and Little Edie and the actresses that portrayed them were up to the task. In Act I Big Edie is played by Zoe Kanter who had an easy, natural air to her otherwise extravagant character, which made her a pleasure to watch and to listen to. Christine Demuth plays Little Edie throughout the show and she holds nothing back. She was strong and confident as the girl struggling to part from her mother, and then fully committed as the regretful, perhaps slightly crazed old maid. From time to time my focus was drawn out of the show by Demuth’s accent or dialect. At first I thought she was doing a mid-Atlantic accent, but Kanter as Big Edie was not doing one, so the intention was unclear to me.

In Act II Big Edie is played by Danielle Robinette who sang beautifully and was funny to watch. She had excellent comedic timing with Demuth when the Edies were talking over each other. It must also be mentioned that whoever did Robinette’s old age makeup did a superb job. The makeup was blended neatly and looked good from even a short distance.

In the ensemble, Adam Cooley as Gould particularly stood out. His character was amusingly flamboyant, yet sincere. He also did some of the best pantomime piano playing I’ve ever seen, excellently timed to the real accompaniment. The youngest members of the ensemble, Jackie and Lee Bouvier played last night by Kate Kilner-Pontone and Compton Little, were quite good. They had minor roles, but they performed them well, and they added an air of sweetness to the show.

Adrienne Gieszl’s lighting was very effective at distinguishing locations and drawing proper focus. The hysterical cat puppets designed by Michael Paradiso were really fun. The selection of refreshments was lovely. But ultimately, it will be up to you to see it, and enjoy it for yourself.

Grey Gardens is a very enjoyable production, which had the audience laughing out loud from the start and on their feet clapping at the end. StillPointe Theatre’s Grey Gardens makes for a great evening out. I highly recommend it.

Running Time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Grey Gardens plays through February 4, 2017 at StillPointe Theatre – 1825 N Charles Street, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased online.

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