Riches-to-rags saga rekindles interest in Kennedy name

Right out of the gait, Thunder Bay Theatre’s first show under new Artistic Director Kevin Reams comes off with plenty of positive vibes and highlights the vocal range of its new core company members.

The musical comedy/drama, “Grey Gardens,” also does its part to rekindle America’s fascination with the Kennedy name. This riches-to-rags saga begs the question of how two women living in a privileged society during the 1940s could sink to the depths of squalor by the 1970s, especially given the fact they were the aunt and cousin of the ultra-rich/ultra-famous Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

“Grey Gardens,” a blend of fact and fiction, is conjured from a documentary produced in 1975 shortly after the tabloids of the day first announced to the world that Jackie O’s relations were living in a once enviable but now filthy mansion with their 52 cats, 1,000 bags of garbage and repeated health code violations.

In a brief prelude in the opening moments of the show, the elderly and bossy “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and her crazily attired daughter, “Little Edie,” languish and bicker in their trashed mansion from which the show derives its name. But soon the script and TBT’s clever set circle back from the 1970s to the 1940s, when Grey Gardens enjoyed its heyday.

The split-act structure of the play introduces the bluebloods in the 1940s just before an engagement party for Little Edie (played by Amy Groen), who is betrothed to Joe Kennedy, Jr. (played by Jeff Mindock). It’s not long though before the deeply troubled and complex mother-daughter relationship rears its ugly head. Little Edie’s mother (Nickie Hilton), a thwarted performer, threatens to divert all the attention of this special day to herself with her plans to perform nearly a dozen songs for guests.

Little Edie is furious and Big Edie then carries it a step further just as she has done with her daughter’s previous suitors, presumably out of jealously or fear of aloneness, Big Edie’s words drive Joe Kennedy away. Both mother and daughter are well-characterized in this first act by the seasoned Hilton and newcomer Groen, who joined the TBT company earlier in the summer.

Mindock also is solid as Joe Kennedy and he demonstrates some topnotch chops in his two duets with Little Edie, “Goin’ Places” and “Daddy’s Girl.” Cracking wise are several other comics figures, including the long-suffering butler, Brooks (Nick Hartman); Big Edie’s flippant live-in pianist, George Gould Strong (Rocky Cooper); Big Edie’s huffy dad, Major Bouvier (Scott Meier) and two of Little Edie’s adorable younger cousins, one of which happens to be Jackie Kennedy Onassis (Allison Kania and Brynna Smith).

The family difficulties in Act I point overtly to the deteriorated emotional lives and fortunes of Big Edie and Little Edie yet to come in Act II. With the second act, it’s now 30 years later and a different actress, the esteemed Terry Carlson, depicts Big Edie, while Hilton becomes the grown-up version of Little Edie.

Both Carlson and Hilton bring haunting, multi-layered portrayals to these two characters, even as they infuse them with humor. Little Edie has become a bit mentally unhinged, and Hilton conveys this perfectly in a hilarious sequence of yoga exercises she unabashedly performs on stage while conversing with her difficult mom.

Despite its obvious humor, the show’s strangely co-dependent mother-daughter relationship also brims with sadness and poignancy. Whereas in the first act the male at the center of their conflict is a Kennedy, by the second act the object of their female competitiveness is a kind but slovenly handyman named Jerry, further demonstrating how far their fortunes have fallen.

Joe and Jerry are totally different characters in every way possible, yet Mindock does an equally commendable job pulling off the handyman in the second act. Also in the plus column, Hartman turns in a good portrayal as a crippled Brooks in Act II, still occasionally helping out the ladies.

The show, a Broadway hit in 2007, seems like it could have worked just as well as a straight comedy/drama rather than its having been turned into a musical. That being said, every voice in the current core company sounds strong and make the singing enjoyable.

Only one more week of performances remain for “Grey Gardens.” Shows are this Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call the box office at 354-2267 for reservations.