BWW Reviews: Haunting Season Finale at Mad Horse Theatre

South Portland's Mad Horse Theatre Company ended its season with a poignant and ambitious production of the Tony-award-winning musical, Grey Gardens. A musical is a bit of a departure for the small theatre company and its tiny black box space, but they acquitted themselves with both substance and aplomb.

Premiered in New York in 2006 with music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie, and book by Douglas Wright, the play tells the heartbreaking story of Jacqueline Kennedy's reclusive aunt and cousin, whose eccentric lives descend into disarray and squalor. With a script that is part Long Day's Journey into Night and a score that is part Stephen Sondheim, Grey Gardens is laden with pathos and a bittersweet humor. The lyrics are mordant; the music through composed as an extension of the dialogue, it is a theatre piece which calls for sensitive singing-actors and a director who can plumb its depths. Fortunately, the Mad Horse Theatre has both!

Director-choreographer Raymond Marc Dumont achieves the seamlessness needed in speech, song, and movement, all the while eliciting from the cast extraordinary nuance. As he evidenced earlier in the season with Into the Woods (Lyric Theatre), Dumont is especially adept at creating a cohesive ensemble capable of detailed interaction and complex overall staging. Moreover, he imbues the piece with heart - unafraid of painful emotions that become cathartic with compassion.

Music Director Rebekkah Willey, together with Ray Libby, and Ben McNaboe, provide an instrumental trio of exceptional skill, who play this score with its intricate harmonies and allusions to other musical styles with fluid ease. The nine-member cast are all competent singing-actors, who understand how to deliver music so it advances text, though special mention is due to Anna Gravel, who plays Little Edie, for her lovely soprano.

The structure of the play, which spans more than thirty years allows, the actors to play dual, often contrasting, roles and/or to appear as a ghost-like chorus of characters in the second act. In the pivotal roles of the younger Edith Bouvier Beale and then Little Edie Beale in later years, Christine Louise Marshall gives a feisty and vulnerable performance - all domineering and pitifully destructive in Act I and then sadly lost in Act II. As the older Edith Bouvier Beale, Susan Reilly gives a sharply spirited characterization- venomous and honeyed by turns, disturbed and disturbingly heart-rending. Anna Gravel completes the female trio as the luminous Little Edie, engaged to Joseph P. Kennedy and full of unrealistic hopes and suppressed psychological issues.

As the young Kennedy scion, Nicholas Schroeder exudes a wholesome preppiness, though one might wish for a bit more brash confidence, but then in the second act he brings to the simple young helper Jerry a perfect mixture of callow naiveté and plainspoken wisdom. David Jon Timm is an affecting George Gould Strong, hopelessly alcoholic, obviously parasitic, but nonetheless not without a measure of honesty and sympathy that allows him to quit the Beale household. Tony Reilly fleshes out Major Bouvier, making him a larger than life, gruff, controlling, yet engaging patriarch who fascinates his two young granddaughters, Jackie and Lee, played sweetly and gracefully by Blair Carpenter and Rose Cannon respectively. Reilly also adds his panache to the second act cameo number as a saccharine, evangelical Norman Vincent Peale.Thomas Smallwood rounds out the cast playing the butler and later houseman, Brooks Sr. and Jr. with a quiet, sympathetic dignity.

The sets by Scott Leland create an effective contrast between the wealth of Grey Gardens in Act I and the pitiable shabbiness of Act II, a contrast enhanced by Tom Wyatt's sunny first act and shadowy gloom in the second. Christine Louise Marshall's costumes are characterful with some elegant fashion in Act I and some whimsically forlorn touches in Act II.

One is continually amazed at what inspiring theatre this little company with the constraints of its resources is able to produce! Moreover, Mad Horse Theatre is to be congratulated for the range of its repertoire and the fearlessness of its programming. A few of the larger Maine companies would do well to take a cue in developing their seasons.

Photos Courtesy of Mad Horse Theatre Company

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From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

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