by Terrance Mc Arthur
Long ago, musicals used to be musical comedies, big and splashy, tuneful and fun. Somewhere along the way, they seem to have split into two groups: massive, scenery/effects-driven spectacles, and intimate, rip-the-characters-apart dissections of society. Grey Gardens: the musical has some scenery, but it is peopled with characters grasping, dragging them down, clawing at each other.
Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little Edie,” were socialites in the 1940s, the girl about to marry into the Kennedy clan. Times and fortunes changed, leaving the two women living in a dilapidated, cat/flea/raccoon-infested mansion, Grey Gardens, in the Hamptons. Subjects of a 1975 documentary, their story was transformed into a musical in 2006 by playwright Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Korie. StageWorks Fresno is presenting it, under Joel Abels’ direction, at the Dan Pessano Theatre on the Clovis North campus until August 11.
The play focuses on 1941 and 1973, with different people playing the same parts at different ages, different parts at different times, and anything else required by the script.
Sara Gettelfinger played 1941 Little Edie in New York, and now she plays 1941 Edie and 1973 Little Edie. In the first act, she is an overbearing mother who has to own the spotlight, even at her daughter’s engagement party. She seems intent on sabotaging the match, even while she looks forward to the possible rise in fortunes for her family.
Gettelfinger possesses a Lauren Bacall-ish glamour, here, sensuous and graceful, with a brutal touch of “Mommy Dearest.”
The second act turns her into a self-deluding, over-the-hill Paris Hilton, angular, awkward, and destitute. The change between the characters shows incredible range. She stepped into the role when the original actress became unavailable, and is a major asset of this production. Most of the real plot is loaded into the first act, but Gettelfinger’s transformation powers the show through to the ending.
Jessie Withers is soft and bubbly as Little Edie of ’41, with a fatalistic undercurrent, knowing that Mother will manage to ruin things. She is clear and strong, doing her best to stand up to her steamroller-mother.
Tessa Cavalletto, recently of Second Space’s Love Letters, plays Big Edie ’73, a frail creature holding on to her own delusions. She gives her a spark of life, maintaining a continuity with Gettelfinger’s characterization.
Mark Rogers plays the Bouvier patriarch, determined to raise up his own dynasty. He also appears as an effusive Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, a figment of the radio who reaches out to comfort and bolster Big Edie in her squalor. Terry Lewis (I Am My Own Wife) portrays a bargain basement Cole Porter, someone Big Edie found playing in New York, a flamboyant non-lover who caters to her dreams of fame and stardom. Nicolle Dille and Kyla Martin sweetly appear as two Bouvier cousins who will grow up to be Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill. Daniel Hernandez makes a slightly oily Joseph Kennedy Jr. and a sleazy, good-hearted, not-too-bright young man who brings food and pet supplies to the mansion. Harrison Mills performs as two generations of Grey Gardens’ servants, men who know better than their employers.
StageWorks Fresno is very busy, having just wrapped a two-performance run of Les Miserables, and preparing for God of Carnage and a return of A Year With Frog and Toad. Keep at it.