REVIEW: Grey Gardens (Jedlicka Performing Arts)

     
     

Technical problems, tame performances mar Jedlicka production

     
     

Mary Nigohosian and Mary Hobein

  
Jedlicka Performing Arts Center presents
       
Grey Gardens
   
Book by Doug Wright
Music by
Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by
Michael A. Kott
at
Jedlicka Performing Arts Center, Cicero (map)
through Jan 29  |  tickets: $17  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

When documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles ventured into Grey Gardens, they could never have expected the kind of cultural effect two reclusive relatives of a former first lady could have on America. “Grey Gardens” became a cult classic, spawning a Broadway musical, an HBO original film (starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange), and thousands of revolutionary Halloween costumes (including some for babies). The home of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Grey Gardens was once a regal Hampton estate but deteriorated after years of neglect from its two inhabitants. Frankel, Korie, and Wright’s musical Grey Gardens examines the majestic past and tragic fate of the Beales and their dilapidated cage of memories, setting the first act in 1941, the second in 1973, and having one actress play a different Edie in each. Mary Nigohosian fills the dual role in Jedlicka’s production, and is undeniably the best part of a show plagued with technical problems and otherwise uninspiring performances.

Mary NigohosianThe beauty of Grey Gardens is the emotional intensity of the music in relation to these eccentric yet incredibly real characters. The tragedy lies in the truth behind the Edies’ circumstances, and Jedlicka’s production simply lacks honesty. In the first act, much of the music is light and whimsical fare in the vein of Porter or Berlin, so the actors have to use the dialogue to make the gravity of their situation as real as possible. Unfortunately, many of these early scenes are underscored, and due to space constrictions in the theater the pit is in a different room. The actors have to rush through most of their dialogue to keep up with the orchestra, which plays beautifully, but needs to give the actors a little more room to breathe. A lot exposition is lost in these scenes because the actors have trouble keeping up with and staying louder than the orchestra, and as a result it’s hard to get a feel for who these people are beneath the broadly drawn caricatures.

Nigohosian shines in the first act, where she is able to play the more traditional diva role as Edith Sr. in 1931, a glamorous attention whore of a housewife. With her pianist and gay best friend George Gould Strong (Austin Cook), Edith plans her set list for Little Edie’s (Jill Sesso) engagement party. Meanwhile, Edie is concerned with only one thing: getting out of Grey Gardens once she marries Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. (Charles Lane Cowen). As they wait for Mr. Beale to arrive back from the city, Edith’s father Major Bouvier (Gary Saipe) harps on his daughter for her bohemian behavior, which Frankel and Korie capture in hilariously offensive musical numbers. Bits like Edith’s “itty bitty geisha” and full-on songs like “Hominy Grits” are written to be exaggerated, yet Nigohosion is too restrained during these scenes. It feels like the entire ensemble is holding back; the director hasn’t brought the actors to a point where they’ve found the truth of their characters.

When Edith performs her horrific Mamie routine, her black butler Brooks (Steven Perkins) barely reacts. When Gould tells Edie he is leaving he doesn’t look sad or heartbroken, he just looks bored. Moments like these help flesh out character relationships, and are glossed over too much in this production. It doesn’t help that most of the time the actors are facing out to the audience despite speaking to each other, which is fine during singing, but not so much during dialogue. Eye contact helps. Another problem is maintaining dialects, and as difficult as it is to sing in dialect, it’s essential to keeping the illusion of the characters real in this play. This ensemble struggles with the difficult New England accents, which is major problem in act two, when the characters become defined by their shrill, nasal voices.

In the second act, so much of Little Edie’s character comes through her hyper-nasal voice, and the act two musical numbers require an amazing amount of technique to maintain her vocals. In the opening of act two, “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” Nogohosian has so much extra business with her costume that she isn’t able to focus on the incredibly difficult music, and despite a strong start the number fizzles at the end. Act two crawls toward its climax, and Edie’s concluding solos are affected by the difficulties with the pit. Tempo changes are jarring, and as Nogohosian tries to match the speed of the orchestra she devotes less to the actual emotion of the music. There are moments of “Another Winter In A Summer Town” (one of my favorite ballads of the last decade) when Nogohosian clicks with the orchestra and there is a glimpse of the Edie-that-could-be, but they shouldn’t be coming this late in the show.

In the end of the documentary (and thus the play) the Grey Gardens estate was a complete wreck, its two residents living in piles of trash, cats, and corn. Jedlicka’s production of Grey Gardens is messy in all the wrong ways, with the actors giving bland performances that don’t capture the desperation of these spectacular women. The transformation of Grey Gardens from act one to act two is the perfect physical representation of what is wrong with this show. Selective piles of rubbage are placed on Edith’s bed and the refrigerator, yet the rest of the space remains completely clean. If we are supposed to believe these women live in a garbage dump flea bag of a home, it has to look that way. Everything needs to be taken to the next level – the acting, the set, the technical design – if the tragedy of the Beales is to be believed.

  
  

Rating: ★½

     
     

Grey Gardens continues at Jedlicka Performing Arts Center, Cicero (map) through January 29.  Tickets are $17.  More info.

Grey Gardens brochure picture

Artists

GREY GARDENS stars Mary Nigohosian of Batavia, Mary Hobein of Woodridge, Tessa Newman of Naperville, Gary Saipe of Libertyville, Katelyn Smith of Broadview and Austin Cook, Charles Lane Cowen, Jill Sesso and Steven Perkins of Chicago.

GREY GARDENS is directed by Micheal A. Kott with music direction by Adam Gustafson, Choreography by Sarah Bright, Scenic Design by Michael Nedza, Costume Design by Jennifer Ring and Lighting Design by Dante Orfei. Music direction is by Adam Gustafson who will lead an 8-piece live orchestra.

  
  

REVIEW: Hairspray (Jedlicka Performing Arts Center)

Fat is the new black

 

Cast of Hairspray - Finale

   
Jedlicka Performing Arts Center presents
   
Hairspray
 
Bood by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music/Lyrics by
Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
Directed by Dante Joseph Orfei
Jedlicka Performing Arts Center, Cicero (map)
Through July 31  |  
Tickets: $10-$17  |  more info 

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

In the genre of cult films turned into Broadway musicals, Hairspray, currently in a beautifully voiced production at Jedlicka Performing Arts Center in Cicero, may be exceeded only by Little Shop of Horrors. Both shows take quirky approaches to 1960s culture. And both, in their way, are based on horror films.

Amanda Nianick - Tracy Little Shop of Horrors is about a terrorizing, man-eating plant. Hairspray’s subject, to some, seems even more horrifying: Obesity. The plot follows Tracy Turnblad, a plump, bouffant-haired, working-class teenager who yearns to dance on a popular Baltimore TV show, and bring her African-American friends with her. “I want every day to be ‘Negro Day,’ ” she says.

The message of the show has changed somewhat over the years. Fat had yet to become the stuff of nightmares in 1988, when John Waters created his edgy film looking back at the 1960s civil-rights movement. Waters meant it as ironic metaphor when he equated prejudice against people over skin color to bigotry against people over size — much as Randy Newman’s satirical song "Short People" had done a decade before.

During the high racial tensions of the 60’s era, the juxtaposition of fat hatred and racism ranked as high absurdity. Chubbiness was merely unfashionable, while race hatred ran so deep it was unsafe for blacks to venture into white neighborhoods. The comparison remained ridiculous in 2002, when playwrights Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman turned the Waters film into a bouncy Broadway musical.

Today, with all the bitter invective and even violence directed at fat people, it’s starting to seem not so funny.

Hairspray ran in New York for more than 2,600 performances before closing early last year, just before the inauguration of our skinny, black president, Barack Obama. While racism is still with us, equality for African Americans has definitely come a long way forward. The position of ample Americans, meanwhile, has deteriorated to the point where fat folks falsely get the blame for everything from the ills of the health-care system to global warming, with the government poised to track body-mass indices and slender First Lady Michele Obama piling on the stigma.

Today, Hairspray’s message, "You’ve got to think big to be big," has a whole new meaning. Yet it remains a wonderful, deservedly popular musical, with witty dialogue, great tunes and an inspiring story, all highlighted in JPAC’s expansive production.

Considerable technical trouble plagued opening night. A larger-than-expected audience overwhelmed the box office, leading to a start some 20 minutes late. The lights often washed out the backdrop projection screen, while some scenes were too dark, and spotlights sometimes failed to follow their targets. They’d have been much better off with a single painted set and simpler, brighter lighting design. So much haze obscured the stage, it looked as if the ventilation system had been clogged by too much hairspray.

Worst of all, audio feedback, buzzes and uneven sound distracted from the fine singers. It’s to be hoped they’ve fixed things by now, but even with all the problems, the cast’s immense talents shone through.

Amanda Nianick stars as a lively Tracy Turnblad, opening with a vastly powerful rendition of "Good Morning, Baltimore," and Micheal Kott gives a droll performance as her mother, Edna — the role played by Divine in the original film. (It rather misses the point of this show to use padded-out performers instead of casting appropriately sized actors, but we’ll let that go.)

TJ Crawford brings lithe moves and a rich voice to Tracy’s detention friend Seaweed J. Stubbs, and petite Dawn Pryor belts out some big sound as his sister, Little Inez. (Aisha) Nikki Greenlee adds potent vocal largesse as their mom, Motormouth Maybelle, with well-rounded renditions of "Big, Blonde & Beautiful" and "I Know Where I’ve Been."

Ryan Hunt and the Cast of Hairspray with Ana Beleval

Ryan Hunt makes an engaging Corny Collins, Gabby McConnell puts in some fine comic turns as Tracy’s friend, Penny Pingleton, and Nancy Kolton, playing several roles, is especially hilarious as the prison matron. The rest of the ensemble do splendidly as well.

Music Director Adam Gustafson leads a rockin’ 10-piece band — Amos Gillespie (reeds), Carlotta Mayen (reeds), Ben Scholz (percussion), Mike Brooks (percussion), Cody Siragusa (bass), Sandy Lind (keyboards) and Alex Newkirk (keyboards) — that does the high-energy, Motown-influenced score full justice.

It’s a buoyant if sometimes timid production. Christine Kerr’s often lackluster choreography exhibits few of the sexual overtones that made "colored music" so shocking to 1960s sensibilities. And, though Tracy’s zeal for teen hearthrob Link Larkin is written into the script, the passion that ought to sizzle between the couple seems lacking. Vincent Soto brings a great voice, good looks and some great moves to Link, but he makes a cold lover.

Still, the whopping vocals and hugely hopeful theme of JPAC’s Hairspray overcome its imperfections. Go see it.

Along with the hummable tunes, most of us can take away the inspiring idea that we don’t have to be afraid to throw our weight around.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Note: Additional senior discount for July 25th matinee – mention “hairdo” when reserving your tickets.

 

Original Hairspray movie trailer

Chicago theater openings/closings this week

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show openings

A You Like It Loyola University

Burlesque Is More Annoyance Theatre 

Gossamer Adventure Stage Chicago

High Holidays Goodman Theatre

Horrible Apollo Theatre

Murder in Green Meadows Citadel Theatre

The Music Man Rising Stars Theatre

Phedra New World Repertory Theater

The Shape of Things University of Chicago

Shootin’ the Shit with EJ and TJ Annoyance Theatre

The Spectacular Comedy Spectacle Theatre Building Chicago

When She Danced TimeLine Theatre

Young Frankenstein Cadillac Palace Theatre

 

chicago-river-from-vietnammemorial

show closings

An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Dr. John Faustus on His Final Evening Theater Oobleck 

Arsenic and Old Lace Northwestern University 

Bastards of Young Tympanic Theatre

Calls to Blood The New Colony

Cotton Patch Gospel Provision Theater

Everyone’s Favorite Lobster Gorilla Tango Theatre

Fake Steppenwolf Theatre

The Flowers About Face Theatre

The House on Mango Street Steppenwolf Theatre

Kill the Old Torture Their Young Steep Theatre

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow Filament Theatre

Lettice and Lovage Redtwist Theatre

Lucinda’s Bed Chicago Dramatists

Night Watch Jedlicka Performing Arts Center

Rhymes with Evil InFusion Theatre

A Streetcar Named Desire Polarity Ensemble Theatre

Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life) American Theater Company

 

List courtesy of The League of Chicago Theatres 

Show openings/closings this week

show openings

12 Ophelias Trap Door Theatre

Animal Crackers Goodman Theatre

An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Dr. John Faustus on this His Final Evening Theater Oobleck

Fear The Neo Futurists

Lights Out Alma Annoyance Theatre

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom Court Theatre

The Marvelous Wonderettes Northlight Theatre

Pump Boys and Dinettes Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

Rent Big Noise Theatre

Splatter Theater Annoyance Theatre

St. Crispin’s Day Strawdog Theatre

UFC: Under Forced Closure Annoyance Theatre

Yeast Nation (The Triumph of Life) American Theater Company

 

show closings

 

Bill W. and Dr. Bob EverGreen Theatre Ensemble

The Boys Next Door Jedlicka Performing Arts Center 

Bruschetta: An Evening of Short Plays Appetite Theatre

Illocal Comedy Corn Productions

Jackie: An American Life Theatre-Hikes

Poiseidon! An Upside-Down Musical Hell in a Handbag Productions

Rollin’ Outta Here NakedGorilla Tango Theatre

The Ruby Sunrise The Gift Theatre

Super Happy Fun Show Corn Productions 

Tuesdays with Morrie Independent Stars

TV Re-Runs Cornservatory

Under Milk Wood Caffeine Theatre

 

This openings/closings list courtesy of League of Chicago Theatres