Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast
Grey Gardens is something of a hothouse piece, more likely to appeal to the cognoscenti than a broad audience. Act one, set in 1941, is imagined by the authors and lacks ideal focus. The principal relationship between "Big Edie" and "Little Edie," her about to be engaged daughter, gets lost among other characters who are given more prominence than they need. Act two is better and potentially more engaging, but requires both a luminescent performance from the actress who, having played Big Edie in act one, now plays the daughter, and a fragile one from the older actress now playing the mother, both characters having grown more than 30 years older. These roles won Tony Awards for both Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson.
In act one, the score is a mix of plot-driving numbers ("The Five-Fifteen" and "The Telegram"), pastiche numbers ("Hominy Grits" and "Peas in a Pod"), and a couple of dramatic solos ("Daddy's Girl"), but the various pieces don't always mesh well. The second act contains strong dramatic solos for both mother and daughter, but some songs, such as "Entering Grey Gardens" and "Choose to be Happy," don't fit well.
Manatee Players has cast Michelle Anaya as the mother of act one and daughter of act two and, honestly, as soon as the show was announced I imagined her in these roles. She has always been known for her voice more than her acting, but rises to new heights in act one, acting wise. In act two she scores strongly with her three dramatic solos, "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," "Around the World," and "Another Winter in a Summer Town." She cannot quite sustain the otherworldliness that her character has gotten lost in, but what she does accomplish throughout is no mean feat, and she delivers a fine performance. As "Big Edie" in act two, Teri Balash ideally needs to seem 10 years older than she is, Edie being frail and unable to care for herself, and she sings "The Cake I Had" well and otherwise acts the part vividly.
The supporting cast are all terrific, some even more than that. The most important supporting role is Amy Woerner as "Little Edie" as a young woman in the first act. She looks beautiful in the part, with a regal bearing, wears a really neat wig (tip of the hat to director Cory Woomert), and sings strongly. Bill Shideler is perfect as Big Edie's confidant and pianist of 1941, George Gould Strong. Brad Barbaro plays, with stolid military bearing, keeper of the trust funds Major Bouvier, Big Edie's father, and in the second act in a weird apparition, Norman Vincent Peale. Alexander Zickafoose as Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Little Edie's intended groom, is not ideal casting. Mr. Zickafoose has given many fine performances, but he just doesn't have the right stuff for a romantic leading man. Still, he acts and sings the part well. Bridget Marsh and Sophia Cavalluzzi are cousins Jacqueline and Lee Bouvier, soon to become Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Princess Lee Radziwill. They are adorably cute in matching braids. In act one, Timarus Foulks plays major domo Brooks Sr., and then Brooks Jr. in act two. I would welcome the chance to see what this young man could do with a better role.
First time director Cory Woomert campaigned for this assignment, after a longtime fascination with the story. He stages it well. He is facing an uphill battle to keep this unwieldy piece focused, but in the end does a creditable job on that front. He gets fine performances from his cast, so all in all his abilities show promise.
Musical direction is credited to William Coleman, but the show is sung to piano-only tracks. The cast does superbly well singing under these difficult circumstanceslive music is much easier to sing with. Choreography is by Kevin Steele, Ralph Nurmela has designed a fine set, costumes by Suzie Sajec are a very strong element, and Ethan Vail lights effectively.
Thanks to Manatee Players for bringing us the area premiere of Grey Gardens. There is much to admire in this production, and some of what is less than perfect lies at the feet of its creators.
Grey Gardens, through September 22, 2019, at Manatee Center for the Performing Arts, 502 3rd Ave W., Bradenton FL. For tickets and information, call 941-748-0111 or visit manateeplayers.com.