A still image from the Maysles Brothers 1975 documentary, with “Little Edie” before the family mansion.

 

The true-life story of reclusive Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy relatives Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith (“Little Edie”), was the subject of both a famous 1975 documentary and a 2009 HBO film, both with the title Grey Gardens. It’s also the focus of the award-winning musical of the same name, which has its area premiere this month in the Bradenton Kiwanis Theater at the Manatee Performing Arts Center.

The musical, with a book by Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) and songs by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, debuted off-Broadway in 2006 and bowed on Broadway in a revised version later that year. While the second act depicts the mother and daughter much as they were seen in the documentary, living out their later years in a decaying East Hampton mansion overrun with cats, the first is more imaginary, going back to earlier decades in each woman’s life when, perhaps, things could have taken a different turn. 

“The part we didn’t get to see in the documentary is where they come from,” says Manatee Players artistic director Rick Kerby. “Big Edie [the mother] was a singer, for example, so we get to hear more of her music.  It makes you appreciate how far they fell in later years.”

Kerby says he’s had an interest in the show since he saw it in New York City. “It’s unique, it’s quirky, and it has that historical impact,” he explains. “I thought it fit our talent well and could adapt to the smaller space in the studio theater. Our set designer, Ralph Nurmela, knows that space well and is super creative.”

Despite choosing the show to kick off the studio theater season, Kerby is not directing it himself. Frequent Manatee Players actor Cory Woomert (Assassins, The Bridges of Madison County) will make his directorial debut with Grey Gardens. “He did a campaign like I’ve never seen before to get the job,” says Kerby.

Woomert admits to it. “I’m been a fan of the documentary since I was a teenager; I’m just enamored of the characters, and sort of obsessed with the Kennedy clan,” he says. “At first, I wanted to be in the show; then I thought, ‘I don’t want to see this story in anyone else’s hands. I want to direct it.’ I hope audiences will see [the Edies] for the real people they were, not caricatures—and have empathy for them.”

Another frequent Manatee Players performer, Michelle Anaya, landed the plum role of Big Edie/Little Edie (the young Big Edie in the first act, Little Edie in the second). She’s joined by vocal coach Terri Balash, who plays Big Edith in Act II.

Given its subject matter, Grey Gardens seems natural for the Manatee Players’ “Action Through Acting” series, which partners with nonprofits to raise awareness about community issues. Past shows have included Anne of Green Gables (in partnership with Guardian Angels of Southwest Florida, focused on children in foster care) and Oh, Freedom, about the Underground Railroad (partnered with the Historical Resources Department of the Manatee County Clerk). A probable partner for Grey Gardens? The ASPCA, given the cat connection.

Grey Gardens runs Sept. 5-22. Tickets: 748-5875 or manateeperformingartscenter.com.

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