Review: ‘Grey Gardens’ at the Old Opera House

An unusual choice and subject matter for a musical, Grey Gardens tells the story of the dysfunctional relationship between mother Edith Bouvier Beale and daughter “Little” Edie Beale. The two women were the aunt and cousin of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. At one time social debutantes and living in the highest society, they became recluses, living in squalor in their mansion, Grey Gardens, which the health department constantly tried to condemn. The two women were the subject of a documentary in 1975 and Act II of the musical is based entirely on the documentary, while Act 1 sets up the conflict between the two women thirty years prior, in 1941.

Caroline Brewer, Holly Legg, and Rachel Jackson. Photo by Adam Blackstock.

Director David Porterfield expertly leads his cast in this atypical musical, heightening all of the subtle familial tensions and conflict, while Alison E. Shafer masterfully music directs and leads the rich sounding orchestra. Choreography by Ed Conn is clean and bright with some impressive partnering dances.

Holly Legg leads the musical as mother Edith Bouvier Beale in Act I and daughter “Little” Edie Beale in Act II. Legg has a commanding presence on stage perfectly suited to the complex dual role and her larger-than-life portrayal of the matriarch in Act I was outstanding. Her emotional solos “Will You’ and “Another Winter in a Summer Town” ripped out the audience’s heartstrings and Legg subtly shares many physical mannerisms with Brittney Bartlett, who plays her younger self in Act I.

Brittney Bartlett gives a standout performance as Young “Little” Edie Beale. The sweetly shy and awkward young woman soon transforms into a strong willed and eccentric character in the course of a day. Her solo “Daddy’s Girl” was extremely poignant and Bartlett expertly handled the dissonant sustained notes that purposely clashed with the notes the orchestra was playing. Her emotional breakdown near the end of Act I was fantastically real and heartbreaking.

Eric Jones and Brittney Bartlett. Photo by Adam Blackstock.

As Edith Bouvier Beale, Karen Heyser-Paone is a bedridden and sharp-tongued delight. Her character voice is outstanding and her solo “The Cake I Had” was one of the highlights of Act II.

Eric Jones portrays an exceptional contrast of characters as both fiance Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. in Act I and local neighbor boy Jerry in Act II. Jones’ New England accent and confident upper-class mannerisms were spot on as Kennedy and his duet “Goin’ Places” with Bartlett was charming.

Ed Conn is hysterical as alcoholic and flamboyant pianist George Gould Strong. His over-the-top mannerisms nearly stopped the show with laughter at points, as well as all of his witty one-liners.

Rachel Jackson and Caroline Brewer are both adorable and wonderfully precocious as the youngest family members Jacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier (in the pre-First Lady years) and Lee Bouvier.

Steven Brewer gives a strong and often hysterically sharp performance as the family patriarch, grandfather J.V. “Major” Bouvier. A particularly strong scene was his confrontation with Legg over her singing talents and role as a wife toward the end of Act 1. Brewer provided much of the needed powerful tension with his strong delivery, and also made a hilarious cameo much later in Act II as evangelical preacher Norman Vincent Peale.

Everett “Donnie Cruse” gives an admirable performance as Brooks Jr. /Sr., the family’s butler and later portraying the butler’s son in Act II, who landscapes and checks in on the reclusive women at Grey Gardens.

Brittney Bartlett and Holly Legg. Photo by Adam Blackstock.

The set, designed by Patrick H. Wallace, is an ornately designed mansion for Act 1 that cleverly is rearranged and disguised with absolutely disgusting set dressings to form the run down, dilapidated mansion in Act II while still keeping the same set layout intact. Costumes, designed by Sue Brownsmith and Karen Martin, are wonderfully colored period pieces for an upper-class family in the 1940’s. The lights, designed by Will Heyser-Paone, highlight the stark difference between Act I and Act II, with very nice spotlight work on the two leading ladies during their solo numbers.

For a thought-provoking and hysterically poignant evening of musical theater, be sure to visit Grey Gardens at the Old Opera House.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

Grey Gardens plays through May 7, 2017, at the Old Opera House Theatre Company – 204 North George Street in Charles Town, WV. For tickets, call the box office at (304) 725- 4420, or purchase them online.

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Johnna Leary
Johnna Leary recently graduated from Shepherd University with a B.A. in Vocal Performance – Musical Theater. She previously worked as the Arts and Styles Section Editor for the Shepherd University newspaper The Picket and is the West Virginia State Press Editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She is no stranger to the stage and has appeared in many productions with the Washington County Playhouse, Way Off Broadway Dinner Theater, Potomac Playmakers, the Old Opera House and Apollo Civic Theater. She can also be seen on several documentaries and mini series on Investigation Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and National Geographic.