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Beck musical deftly mixes styles

Grey Gardens is a hothouse musical extravaganza inspired by a 1975 film documentary of the same name. It chronicles the Whatever-Happened-to-Baby-Jane relationship of Jackie Kennedy's aunt, Edith Bouvier, and Bouvier's daughter "Little Edie."

If flamboyant purveyors of musical theater weren't eternally obsessed with massive, self-loving female gargoyles (see Hello, Dolly!), and if it weren't for musical audiences' undying fascination with the way parents annihilate and enslave their offspring (see Gypsy), and if musical craftsmen weren't continuously figuring out new ways to deconstruct and reformulate past glories (see The Drowsy Chaperone), and if director and Baldwin-Wallace professor Victoria Bussert hadn't partnered up with inventive choreographer Martin Céspedes in her quest to set up even higher pedestals to display her latest batch of student prodigies, then Grey Gardens wouldn't be wafting its exotic perfumes through Beck's Studio Theatre. And, in consequence, those "sensitive" theatergoers who thrive on rare fruits would be suffering from malnutrition.

In his indispensable movie guide, Leonard Maltin says of the documentary: "Fascinating for voyeurs, but would have had more depth if we had been given a better picture of mother and daughter in their youth." Picking up on this sage advice, bookwriter Doug Wright, in collaboration with composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, has wisely prefaced the film's later picture of decay with earlier fictional material depicting how these two lives went wildly off-track. The notion makes for a uniquely original piece, with a first act in the style of a Philip Barry social comedy with a pseudo Cole Porter score and a second act that's a Brechtian dark satire of tragicomic disintegration.

Mixing her talented students with old pros, Bussert has been extremely canny in her casting. In a grueling double role, first as the younger mother and later as the middle-aged daughter, Maryann Nagel does meritorious battle with a brilliant but challenging score. It's her unflagging comic grandeur and pathos that make her the clear winner in perhaps the finest performance of her long career. As the aged mother of the second act, Lenne Snively has the endearing grotesque eccentricity of a Charles Addams creation. Jillian Kates Bumpas remarkably recalls the golden Life magazine debutantes of yore — a feat of legerdermain that perfectly mirrors the eerie charm of the entire production.

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More by Keith A. Joseph

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