Bradenton theater presents area premiere of the musical inspired by a 1975 documentary
You don’t need to have seen the 1975 documentary “Grey Gardens” to appreciate the area premiere of the musical version that opened Thursday in an impressive production in the Manatee Players’ Bradenton Kiwanis Studio Theatre. But it might help.
The film by Albert and David Maysles documented how the aging Edith Bouvier Beale and her 50-something daughter, Edie (a cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), lived in squalor in their 28-room mansion on Long Island. Trash and cats filled the rotting remains of the house, which was overrun by rodents and had earned numerous health code violations.
In turning that film into a musical, writer Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, embellish the story with a first act that imagines what their lives were like in the more glamorous 1940s and suggests how they ended up as they did. The second act mirrors what happens in the film, with added songs and a bit more heart. You watch fascinated and horrified by the way these once wealthy and pampered women live, eating dinner out of cans that might be either pate or cat food.
In his directorial debut, Cory Woomert does a fine job of bringing all the pieces together in an engaging and clear style, providing a glorious showcase for the talents of Michelle Anaya, who plays two meaty roles.
In the first act, she portrays Edith Beale, a socialite in a troubled marriage, who is about to throw an elegant party to mark the engagement of her daughter, Edie, to Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Edith’s real dream is to be a singer (a socially unacceptable career), and she plans to perform for her guests with the help of her live-in pianist and confidante, Gould.
In the second act, Anaya plays an older version of Little Edie, who has been stuck caring for her mother all these years as their house has fallen to pieces around them. She’s yearning for freedom but is unsure what that really means.
Anaya is radiant as Little Edie, who wears odd combinations of outfits, which she describes as “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” in one song. (Suzie Sajec’s costumes are filled with character and personality.) You can see the bond Edie has with her mother, Edith, who is portrayed by Terri Balash as simultaneously genial and manipulative and mostly eager to do whatever is needed to keep Edie around.
They talk (but rarely listen to one another) and fuss over a slacker neighbor kid named Jerry (played to humorous effect by Alex Zickafoose), who becomes an object of affection for the lonely Edith.
In one of the show’s most poignant scenes, Edie angrily prepares to leave, but seeing some trinkets from her life and hearing her mother calling from her bed, she softens as she sings the touching “Around the World.”
At Thursday’s opening performance, Anaya was slightly less compelling as the younger version of Edith, in a way that suggests there is less to bring forth from the more grounded character. But she still conveys breeding, tenderness and heartbreak.
Amy Woerner is lovely and lilting as the young version of Edie preparing for her engagement party, with Zickafoose as both Jerry and the seemingly upright but calculating Kennedy. Bill Shideler perfectly captures the sarcastic and fey style of Gould, who is rarely without a drink in hand, and Brad Barbaro is commanding as Edith’s determined father and as religious leader Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, who leads the hand-clapping “Choose to be Happy.”
Scenic designer Ralph Nurmela fits a lot of set into the small space, managing, with minor effort, to turn the elegance of Grey Gardens (the name of the house) into something more decrepit, with the help of Ethan Vail’s lighting.
The cast members are accompanied by music director William Coleman, playing a keyboard off stage, and leading them through a score that ranges from emotional ballads to vibrant character songs.
It’s a pleasant change that no microphones are used, but it does require a little more work from the audience, especially when some of the actors, who need to project more, turn away for a moment.
Like the film, which can be dark and dispiriting, the musical is a charming and often captivating oddity that turns an unbelievable story into something heart-warming and surprisingly inspiring.