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: Our Town (Theatre-Hikes)

Strong ensemble brings Grover’s Corners to life

 

rebecca, george & emily 25

   
Theatre-Hikes presents
   
Our Town
  
Written by Thornton Wilder
Directed by
Frank Farrell
at
The Pullman Historic Museum and Morton Arboretum
through September 26  |  tickets: $13-$19  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Our Town, written by Thornton Wilder, offers a glimpse into the daily lives of average Americans in small town New Hampshire. Set from 1901 to 1913, this play takes the audience on a journey of growth and discovery. Focused mainly on the characters of George Gibbs and Emily Webb, Our Town depicts life typical of how things were at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Pullman Historic Museum provides the backdrop for Theatre-Hikes’ Our Town, creating a feeling of being transported back to the early 1900s. (Note: future performances will occur at the Morton Arboretum). Grover’s Corners, NH, the location of Our Town, is brought to life through this use of this space. Being outdoors however, the cast had to compete with airplanes overhead, car alarms and some rather jubilant church music wafting through the air. The cast succeeds, however, in distracting the  audience from such deterrents with their george & emily A 50 strong, captivating performances. Each scene has very minimal set pieces – only six stools. The rest of the action and props are pantomimed. The cast does a good job acting out different experiences without the use of physical props, allowing for the story to really shine through.

Our Town opens on a typical day in Grover’s Corners with the actions narrated by the stage manager (Dan Scurek). Our Town is a meta-theatrical play that announces it’s a play, breaking through the fourth wall to directly address the audience. Scurek’s stage manager/narrator jumps right into character from his first line. He’s incredibly personable and animated with both his words and his actions, creating a character that one looks forward to hearing from. The narrator introduces the rest of the characters in act one, “the Daily Life,” including Mrs. Gibbs (Mary Nigohosian) and Mrs. Webb (Jeanne Scurek). Nigohosian clearly fleshed out her character with a relatable demeanor. She is entertaining to watch as she neatly gets her family ready for the morning – making breakfast and attending to her husband and children. She proves to be the stronger of the two women, set against J. Scurek. Mrs. Webb is, of course, a proper woman, but Scurek plays her a bit too stiffly. She overacts at times, causing the character to feel forced.

The audience is also introduced to young George Gibbs (BJ Engelhardt) and Emily Webb (Courtney Payne). Interacting through typical conversations of homework and baseball, Engelhardt and Payne offer an innocent and sweetly awkward portrayal of two young people discovering their feelings for one another. The first act also introduces the two standout supporting roles of Professor/Constable (Kevin Lambert) and Simon Stimson (Dan Toot). Although these are smaller roles, the actors take them to heart and really make them come to life. Lambert is amusing and proves to be a strong presence while on stage. Similarly, Toot’s character, the choir organist and town drunk, is quite comical, sometimes stealing the spotlight when he’s on.

Act two, “Love and Marriage,” offers a glimpse further into the relationship between Emily and George. There’s a clear chemistry between the two actors, and as the second act progresses, the characters grow and come truly to life. “Love and Marriage” runs a bit quicker than act one, which slightly drags in the beginning. It’s lovely to see George and Emily’s relationship grow; it’s evident that both Engelhardt and Payne have an understanding of their character’s psyche and the reasoning behind their actions and words. Act two concludes with their marriage and all the townsfolk gathering to wish them well.

george, mr. webb stg mang, george, emily, 3 ladies

Our Town concludes with act three, “Death and Eternity.” The townsfolk have gathered in the cemetery to attend the funeral of one of their own. The tone shifts here from light and happy to stark and contemplative. Payne’s character arch becomes even greater as she attempts to deal with the situation at hand, and real, raw emotions come through, connecting her even further to the audience. Mrs. Gibbs proves to be a comforting presence in this time of sorrow, and Nigohosian’s gentle character is a relief for both the characters and the audience members.

Overall, Our Town is a solid show. The acting is generally on point, and the two-and-a-half hours go by quickly. There is quality direction by Frank Farrell, which allows each actor the confidence to move about without fumbling, and the costuming by Melissa Snyder adds another layer to the show. Each outfit is appropriate to both the characterization and the time frame of Our Town, which helps to shape the story.

(Side note: Act three even allowed for a bit of audience interaction when audience member Dale Gallian was asked to step in a fill a small role of Farmer McCarthy.)

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Our Town plays at the Morton Arboretum, 4100 Illinois Route 53 in Lisle, IL. The show runs on Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00 pm through September 26. Tickets are $13 to $19 and can be purchased at www.mortonarb.org or by calling (630) 725-2066.

Our Town Ae

      
     

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