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CUSTOM MADE THEATRE COMPANY brings a Grey Garden to their already Gothic stage.

Heather Orth delivers a tour-de-force performance in the CMTC Production of GREY GARDENS.

Based on the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles Grey Gardens, is the true story about Edith Bouvier Beal (the aunt of Jackie Kennedy) and her daughter, Little Edie. The two women lived in a damaged garbage filled home overrun by cats and raccoons. The Custom Made Theatre Company’s production of the 2006 Grey Gardens Musical features incredible performers and artists elevating a flawed book and score to reveal an interesting musical about toxic relationships. Heather Orth delivers a tour-de-force performance, playing the mother “Big” Edie Beale in the first act and then transforming sensationally into the daughter “Little” Edie Beale for the second.

The story of Mother-Daughter pair Big Edie and Little Edie, the aunt and cousin of the famed Jackie Onassis. The first act takes place around 30 years before the events of the film, centering on a fictionalized engagement party for Little Edie set in the 1940s. In an attempt to shoehorn as many references to the Kennedys as possible into the show, Little Edie is engaged to Joseph Kennedy. In addition the only two of her seven cousins who appear are her most famous cousins Jackie and Lee, who are admonished to “marry well” in a heavy-handed wink-wink-nudge-nudge to the audience. This is one of the weaknesses of the play, which stresses the connection to American royalty at the expense of character development for its two fascinating leads and adds too many unnecessary numbers and distracting characters. It’s definitely a show that appeals to people who are already very interested in the source material and historical figures involved.

It’s hard to say enough about how much Heather Orth brings to this show. Her voice is strong and clear, expertly handling the serious emotional songs as well as the light and frothy comedic numbers. In the second act she brings the campy humor that “Little” Edie is known for and performs recognizably as Edie while still being a fully realized character. Her “Big” Edie in the first act shows just as much incredible range as she shows in the second, from her racist parlor songs to her emotional breakdowns. It’s truly a star turn for Orth.

Mary Gibboney appears for a moment as “Big” Edie at the beginning of the first act, but is present throughout the second act, bringing depth of emotion and comical cluelessness. Her ability to bring out the controlling and demanding nature of her character while still retaining the fundamental helplessness of her situation is remarkable and her singing voice perfectly suits the role.

The young couple in the first act are played by Juliana Lustenader and Nathan Brown. Lustenader has a first-rate voice and is very fetching, patting her blonde curls and playing the daughter of privilege. Brown is a little stiff and seems uncomfortable, but sings his part well. He is much better in the second act as Jerry, where he has less to sing but finds the humor and physicality quite well. Dave Sikula embraces his role as the utterly unlikable (and mostly unnecessary) “Major” Bouvier, the father of “Big” Edie. He comes back in the second act to play the even more superfluous radio presence of Norman Vincent Peale with equal flair. It’s a shame to see this talented performer written into a corner.

Daniel Solomon plays Brooks Sr./Brooks Jr. and finds his stride in the second act as the gardener who can barely disguise his pity for the women he works for. The two little Bouvier cousins are played by Nandi Drayton and Gabriella Jarvie with aplomb and heaps of cuteness. The construction of the show requires an onstage pianist/music director who also acts and sings, and while David Aaron Brown is not an actor he passably conveys the character of glass-closet homosexual and personal pianist/composer of “Big” Edie while playing the entire score of the show, which is quite a feat of multi-talent.

If Orth has a costar, it’s the beautiful set designed and built by Stewart Lyle, who brings to life Grey Gardens as the luxurious home of east-coast aristocracy and then engineers the shift into abject squalor for the second act. It’s a thrust-style stage with a tiny attic room built up into the back and artistically lit by William Campbell. While Campbell is a bit trite in his use of a barred-window template to represent a garden gate while heavily implying light coming into a prison cell, his other choices are both subtle and compelling, focusing attention and creating the dankness of the house in the second act. Brooke Jennings does the costumes with an expert touch (which makes it all the more baffling that Joseph Kennedy is swimming in his white tuxedo) and makes Lustenader look almost supernaturally beautiful in a gorgeous layered dress. Choreographer Kim Saunders, keeps the show at the orginal pace of the dance we see in the documentary, and is one of fun looks of the musical.

The musical was named one of Broadway’s “Best of 2006”. But despite the best efforts of the cast and designers the show is at times hard to sit through. While the true story of Grey Gardens is a sad and dark one, this show really wallows in the dysfunction and misery of the relationships. The re-appearance of the characters from Act I as ghosts or memories or a chorus (it isn’t clear) feels ill-conceived and bogs down the dynamic between the two Edies that forms the emotional through-line of the show, a through-line that is too often sidetracked by superfluous numbers by almost-relevant characters. It’s impressive that director Stuart Bousel took the risk to keep the show so dark and torrentially emotional, but at some point it becomes difficult to care about these people who torture each other, feel terrible, sing about it, and start again.

Custom Made Theatre company, had a very successful season, and has just announced its 17th season. Its an exciting line up including THIS IS OUR YOUTH and MIDDLETOWN. Find more information at the links below and as GREY as the Gardens appear, don’t miss local favorite Heather Orth amazing performance as Edie.

Grey Gardens, the Musical

Book by Doug Wright, Music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie

Based on the Documentary by Albert and David Maysles

Directed by Stuart Bousel

Musical Direction by David Brown

With David Brown, Nathan Brown, Nandi Drayton Mary Gibboney, Gabrielle Jarvie, Juliana Lustenader, Heather Orth, CC Sheldon, and Dave Sikula

May 26, - June 21, 2015

Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough Street in San Francisco

Photos by Jay Yamada

Correspondent Matt Bratko - is a recent grad of University of California Berkeley with a Double-Major BA in Theatre and Performance. He is currently studying at the University of Florida for his MFA in Theatre. Bratko contributes to VmediaBackStage

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