by Matthew Falduto
Cedar Rapids – I cannot think of another musical based on a documentary film, but perhaps they exist. Grey Gardens, presented by Revival Theatre Company last night at CSPS, has a unique backstory, and it provides opportunities for some of the Corridor’s best singers to show their talents.
The creators of Grey Gardens started with the 1975 documentary and made up a first act set 40 years earlier. While act 2, set in the 1970s, uses much of the dialogue from the movie, the first act is entirely a creation of the minds of Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music), Michael Korie (lyrics). Perhaps this accounts for some of the unevenness of the story as the first act drags on and on, moving toward a conclusion one can see is coming about ten minutes in, and the second act is filled with humor, but lacks a strong story line.
This is the story of a mother and a daughter, Big Edie and Little Edie, who are the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who is adorably played by Abby Zeets. Big Edie’s father (Steve Rezabek) is emotionally abusive and her husband has left her. It’s the story of women trapped by their time, unable to break out of the society they find themselves in, their dreams dashed by circumstance. It’s a rather depressing story to be honest, though the characters are interesting. The first act shows us the events leading up to Little Edie’s engagement party. It’s clear from very early on that the engagement to Joseph Kennedy Jr. (Aaron Brewer) is not going to actually happen, and we’re waiting to find out how exactly Big Edie is going to ruin everything. The second act doesn’t really have much of a plot – we are transported 40 years in the future to experience how decrepit their home has become and how depressing their lives are.
Revival’s production is filled with wonderfully talented singers. The star of the show is Nina Swanson in a powerful performance. In the first act, she plays the older Edie and in the second act she portrays the younger Edie. Both are clearly defined characters, connected yet separate. Swanson’s voice is simply sublime, particularly in the final song of Act 1, “Will You?”, when everything is falling apart around her and she’s trying to keep it all together.
Angela Bilman’s voice also soars in Act 1, as she expresses the frustrations of young Edie. “Daddy’s Girl” is a heartbreaking ode to the pressures of women in the time period, forced to be what society wants them to be rather than their own true natures. Bilman channels that frustration and desperation into a fascinating performance of the song.
Aaron Brewer shows off his skills by portraying the debonair sexist prig Joseph Kennedy in the first act and then offering a completely opposite character in the second act. Jerry, the slow and shy handyman Brewer portrays in Act 2, is the confidant of both the mother and daughter. Brewer changes his face to portray Jerry, opening his eyes more and using a small smile as his resting expression. He also hunches over more as Jerry, creating the impression of someone who is never comfortable in his own skin. This is a complete contrast to his Kennedy character, who walks very purposefully, owns every room he enters, and has a slightly bored resting expression. It’s always fun to watch an excellent actor at work.
Joe Wetrich is great as the constantly drinking, piano playing buddy of Big Edie in Act 1. His knowing smile and deadpan delivery offer many much needed chuckles in that too long first act. Honestly, all of the actors deliver fine performances.
Rob Sunderman’s scenic designer is fantastic. It’s amazing how much of the house they are able to squeeze onto that small stage. Scrims are used to hide the interior the house, a nice effect allowing for a fun reveal at the top of each act. The projection on the scrim at the beginning of the show was also very effective. Scott Olinger’s lighting design worked well, particularly when it had to delineate the outside the house on a very narrow space downstage.
The orchestra was great, never drowning out the singers, but instead proving an excellent accompaniment. I have no criticism of the production itself – it was professionally done from top to bottom. I do wonder why Revival chose this particular musical, as its story was somewhat lacking. Still, there’s no doubt that many in the audience appreciated it far more than I as some even offered a standing ovation at the end. And though the musical wasn’t my favorite, I do have to say the singing was wonderful. It runs for three more performances this weekend at CSPS.