by Nancy Holley
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Grey Gardens is unusual in a number of ways, but perhaps most notably for being the only musical based on a documentary. Thus, the show has an historical perspective uncommon in musical theatre.
The focus of the play is the lives of Edith Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and her daughter Little Edie who were a part of the aristocracy in East Hampton, Long Island in the 1940s. Big Edie’s brother “Black Jack” Bouvier was Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ father, making the women “shirt-tail” relatives of American Royalty.
The 1970s documentary about their lives reveals the tragedy that can occur when those who are unaccustomed to caring for themselves are left without the resources on which they have always relied. The situation was exacerbated by Big Edie’s identification with her home, Grey Gardens, and her inability to accept the reality of her existence. Big and Little Edie lived together at Grey Gardens for nearly forty years. Their tangled, dysfunctional relationship is at the heart of the story. Both had aspirations of musical and theatrical success which never came to fruition.
Since the impetus for the musical was the documentary created when the mother and daughter where in their 70s and 50s, respectively, license was taken by the composer, lyricist, and playwright in the design of Act 1. The creators imagined what the women’s lives would have been like in the 1940s with the grandeur that wealth can offer.
To support the idea of family prominence, the creators included a fictionalized engagement between Little Edie and Joe Kennedy, Jr., John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s older brother. The troubling relationship between mother and daughter becomes obvious when Big Edie sabotages the possible union. She wants Little Edie all to herself.
Act 2 draws heavily on the documentary with dialogue from both women being the exact words they spoke in the original movie. By the 1970s, their lives have changed dramatically. They are living in a mansion that is in total disrepair, filthy, and filled with cats and the occasional raccoon.
As noted by Co-Director Auggie Hernandez, “Act 1 is classic musical theatre, but Act 2 is very different with modern themes.” Both directors are fascinated with and excited by the show, but for different reasons. Hernandez loves the music despite its difficulty. Co-Director Jennifer Toledo is intrigued by the historical aspects, “It is interesting, the reality of these women once the talk of the town who became hoarders.”
Michelin White, who portrays Big Edie in Act 1 and Little Edie in Act 2, is originally from Porterville. Although this is her first production with the Visalia Players, she is no stranger to the stage, being heavily involved with The Barn Theater. “I’m very excited about becoming involved here, particularly in a musical not usually performed by community theatre.”
In Act 1, Big Edie has a live-in accompanist, George Gould Strong (Jeremy Salas). Salas explained, “Big Edie and Strong have grandiose images of their talents. They have a love relationship with music, feeding off each other. Their relationship might be considered toxic.”
Big Edie, the recluse in her 80s in Act 2, is a role Debra Hansen relishes. She describes Big Edie as narcissistic, “She has to be the center of attention.” Hansen continues, “Big Edie feels at home in Grey Gardens. It is the center of her universe. She never wants to be anywhere else.”
Despite the pathos of its riches to rags reality, Grey Gardens is described by the cast and directors as a beautiful story. When asked what makes it beautiful, the unanimous response was “the music.”
Grey Gardens opens at the Ice House Theatre at Race and Santa Fe in Visalia at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 1, 2019 and runs for three weekends with evening performances at 7:30 p.m. on 2/1, 2/2, 2/8, 2/9, 2/15, and 2/16, and matinees at 2 p.m. on 2/3, 2/10, and 2/17.
For more information about the Visalia Community Players and to purchase tickets, check out their website and KRL’s article about VCP. Tickets may also be purchased by calling 734-3900. For details about local arts groups in Tulare County, visit the Visalia Arts Consortium website.
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