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Stillpointe strikes impressive chords in 'Grey Gardens'

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Baltimore's ambitious Stillpointe Theatre reveals its strengths with potent staging of "Grey Gardens."

Inspired by the riveting 1975 documentary of the same name, the bittersweet musical "Grey Gardens," receiving an affecting production by Stillpointe Theatre, opens a window into the spiraling lives of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale ("Big Edie") and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale ("Little Edie").

They went from convention-tweaking socialites to hoarding eccentrics, spending their reclusive existence in a home dubbed Grey Gardens in the Village of East Hampton on Long Island, N.Y. — a place where, as Little Edie memorably notes, "they can get you … for wearing red shoes on a Thursday."

The 2006 musical, which had a well-received Broadway run, has a mostly sturdy book by Doug Wright and a sophisticated score by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics).

Act 1 provides a fictionalized glimpse of what life may have been like for the women in 1941. It's a period when Edith, an aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy and Lee Radziwill (both are depicted as children in the musical), ruled the house with a mix of style, imperiousness and a Florence Foster Jenkins-worthy belief in her musical talents.

The strange later years of this uniquely entwined mother and daughter are saved for Act 2, the portion of the musical that stems most directly, in some cases verbatim, from the documentary.

Driving home the contrasting mental and physical states in "Grey Gardens," the Stillpointe staging, fluently directed by Danielle Robinette and Ryan Haase, takes advantage of the company's two intimate storefront performance spaces. The first act takes place in one, the second in the other.

This practical solution neatly avoids having to make a major set change, of course. But requiring the audience to walk next door for Act 2 is a cool way to underline the sense of major transformation in the characters' lives from one era to the next.

Haase's set design evokes both environments in fine detail. He covers the pre-crumbled Grey Gardens with a bold floral wallpaper (I'm talking literally floral) that suggests how unconventional this house always was with the Beales in residence. He piles on the decay in Act 2 to telling effect.

Zoe Kanter steps firmly and vibrantly into the role of Edith. She gets across the volatile mix of guts and nuts that fuels this independent-minded woman, who compulsively pushes away and pulls close her high-energy daughter. Kanter also reveals the chops and charm to handle the period-evocative songs, especially the plaintive "Will You?"

A little too-heavily made-up Robinette takes over the role in Act 2 and does a persuasive job with it, letting the pride and a trace of warmth emerge from beneath Big Edie's neediness.

Christine Demuth makes a disarming Little Edie. She captures the character's mercurial moods and ever-conflicted feelings about her mother as deftly as she evokes the real Edie's accent and leggy movements.

She likewise makes palpable Edie's intense desire to shine on the stage — anywhere, really. If her intonation isn't always secure in upper reaches, Demuth's dynamic singing communicates vividly throughout.

In the solid supporting cast, particularly strong contributions come from Bobby Libby as Joe Kennedy (the musical posits a romance between Kennedy and Little Edie); Adam Cooley as Gould, Big Edie's campy friend and accompanist; and Jon Kevin Lazarus as the handyman Jerry, who becomes a sympathetic regular at the ladies' crumbling, cat-, flea- and debris-filled home.

Those cats and other critters are brought to life in droll fashion with the help of puppets designed by Michael Paradiso.

The production may not have a big budget behind it (like so many other troupes in the city, Stillpointe leads a frugal existence), but there's a lot of stylish work here. That includes the imaginative costumes by Kitt Crescenzo and a polished ensemble of musicians led by music director Ben Shaver, who ensures that the score's nuances keenly register.

"Grey Gardens" has been extended an extra weekend. It deserves several more.

If you go

"Grey Gardens" runs through Feb. 12 at Stillpointe Theatre, 1825 N. Charles St. Tickets are $25. Go to stillpointetheatre.com.

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