Broadway comes to Syracuse in the form of 'Grey Gardens'

Aubry Panek as Edith Bouvier Beale in 'Grey Gardens.' Photo: Jessie Dobrzynski Grey Gardens Who The District Festival Where  The Empire Theater, 581 State Fair Blvd. Syracuse When Through March 24 Tickets $20 per show; $50 for all three Review by Christina Riley

A Broadway-caliber performance at the New York State Fairgrounds isn’t something you’d expect. Rarely Done’s production of Grey Gardens makes that a reality.

The company’s artistic director, Dan Tursi, directs Grey Gardens as part of the three-show District Festival, which also features Redhouse’s The Full Monty and Appleseed Production’s  I Remember Mama.  As a collaborative community theater venture, each of the three plays is performed on the same stage in rep for three weekends.

Grey Gardens the musical is based on the 1975 documentary film of the same title by Albert and David Maysles. With a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, the play chronicles the story of the eccentric daughter/mother pair Edith Bouvier Beale (Aubry Panek in the first act and Tina Lee in the second act) and Edie Beale (Ceara Windhausen in the first act, Panek in the second act) who went from esteemed socialites to shunned recluses living in squalid conditions. Their story was originally told in the documentary, then as an off-Broadway musical in 2006, and more recently an Emmy award-winning HBO film in 2007 starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.

The musical is divided into two distinct acts. The first establishes the glory days of the Beale women—glam, fortune and a future of opportunity—while the second settles into the Beales’ sad reality of missed opportunity and dire regrets. The play starts with everyone preparing for Edie’s engagement party to Joseph Kennedy (Chris Wiacek).  Nieces Jackie and Lee Bouvier (Laura Koss and Nancy O’Conner) are excitedly waiting for the party and Grandpa Bouvier (Robert Kovak) is there to give his blessings.

The cult-classic 'Grey Gardens' centers on the Notorious recluses  Edith Bouvier Beale and Edie Beale.Photo: Jessie Dobrzynski

It’s in this act that the audience is introduced to Edith’s overbearing ways and the tense mother-daughter relationship as she plans every aspect of Edie’s party and then insists on singing nine songs. However, it’s also in this act that we are introduced to the talent of Aubry Panek.

Panek takes to the stage donned in a flowing, red and yellow print caftan with 1940s-coiffed auburn red hair and matching lipstick; her presence immediately settles the room. When she sings the first song of the act “The Girl Who Has Everything,” the production no longer feels like a play at the Fairgrounds but a $200 dollar seat in a Broadway theater.

Panek, who has worked with Tursi previously in Menopause The musical and Mid-Life! The Crisis Musical, has really mastered her craft.  From start to finish of the two-hour musical, Panek carefully executes each note and brings the audience into Edith’s mindset of being a “renowned” performer.

She seamlessly transitions to playing the role of Edie, who is more disheveled and a bit delusional in the second act. Panek moves across the stage with such elegance and form, reminiscent of Grace Kelly in the first act with songs, “Will You?” and “Two Peas in a Pod.” Yet, she still brings the cynicism and hysteria the role requires in the second act.

Aside from the 10-piece orchestra sometimes drowning out the actors who did not use microphones, the production of Grey Gardens is a successful one. Rarely Done has seemingly brought Broadway to Central New York.