DIVA TALK: Chatting with Grey Gardens' Mary Louise Wilson PLUS Anderson and Brel on Disc

News   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Grey Gardens' Mary Louise Wilson PLUS Anderson and Brel on Disc
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Mary Louise Wilson in Grey Gardens
Mary Louise Wilson in Grey Gardens Photo by Joan Marcus

In her award-winning career, Mary Louise Wilson has played a remarkable array of characters — including fashion editor Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop, the acclaimed play she penned with Mark Hampton — but perhaps none has been quite as colorful as her current assignment. Wilson portrays the older Edith Bouvier Beale in Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie's new musical at the Walter Kerr Theatre, Grey Gardens. Based on the cult-classic Maysles documentary of the same name, Wilson is featured in the second act of the Michael Greif-directed production when both the Grey Gardens estate and the two reclusive women who inhabit it are but shadows of their former glory. The musical is a triumph for its two stars, Christine Ebersole — who plays Edith in the first act and "Little" Edie in the second — and Wilson, who brings perfect comic timing and a big Broadway belt to her role and makes more of songs about cake and corn than one would think humanly possible. In fact in his New York Times review, Ben Brantley wrote, "Ms. Wilson casually turns 'The Cake I Had' into a stinging study of the kind of willfully positive denial that makes old age bearable. And her song to Jerry about the corn she cooks on a hot plate becomes a strangely affecting ode to small pleasures and the vestiges of one woman’s misplaced maternal instincts." I recently had the chance to chat with Wilson, whose Broadway resume also boasts a terrifically moving (and Tony-nominated) performance as Fraulein Schneider in the Tony-winning revival of Cabaret as well as the Angela Lansbury revival of Gypsy, which cast Wilson as Tessie Tura and Lansbury's standby. The brief interview with the multitalented actress follows.

Question: How did the role of Edith come about for you?
Mary Louise Wilson: It started off as a workshop at Sundance in this wonderful estate in Florida. We went down there and worked on it, which was the beginning of [the process] — that was two years ago.

Q: Had you seen the "Grey Gardens" documentary at that point?
Wilson: Yes, I had. I saw it [when it was] originally [released].

Q: Do you remember what your thoughts were when you first saw the film?
Wilson: I was very upset by it. I thought it was so sad and distressing, but I feel very differently about it now. After seeing it more than once, several times, these women were in some ways where they wanted to be. They had a certain relationship to each other that was valuable. They needed to be in that house, and the mother, particularly, did not notice the mess or care [about it]. She rose above it. There are many qualities about both of them that I began to really admire and like.

Q: When you were playing the show Off-Broadway, did you think that it could work on Broadway?
Wilson: I didn't know. The subject matter's odd, [and] it's a dark musical. It's not tap-dancing, so I didn't know, but it seems to be doing very well! Q: How do you find playing in the larger space of the Walter Kerr versus the Playwright Horizons stage?
Wilson: Well, Playwrights was good because it was very intimate. It's a lovely theatre, and you really connect there with the audience. On the other hand, having more space feels great — not only just technically, backstage is much easier — but I think the play does better in the bigger space.

Q: I thought it worked well in the larger space, and I liked the new opening.
Wilson: Oh good. Yes, we worked on that. The creators wanted to embrace the second act more in the first act, frame it.

Q: What do you think of Edith?
Wilson: I love her! You can't play a character without loving her. I just think she's like a grand dame — as though she were still in her lovely living room, serving tea and singing her songs.

Q: You started out in musicals. . .
Wilson: I did start off in them because I started off in comedy, and you couldn't do comedy without being in musicals, so I had to learn to sing.

Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show for Edith?
Wilson: I have several. I think my favorite moment is "[Jerry Likes My] Corn."

Q: When you first were given that song, what did you think?
Wilson: I thought Scott Frankel was mad! I thought he was insane! [Laughs.] It's kind of a love affair with Jerry, and this is not unusual — an older woman with a young man. No hanky-panky, just a kind of maternal doting. Jerry still exists. He's very much alive and with us and driving a cab in New York City, and he has said how much he cared about [Edith]. . . . He told a lot of stuff to the creators, who happen to live uptown and got in his cab.

Q: What do you think is the message of Grey Gardens or what does it say to you?
Wilson: It's about intimate relationships and family — familial relationships, particularly between mother and daughter. It's also about loss, a great deal about loss and what that feels like.

Q: Why do you think Little Edie wasn't able to escape Grey Gardens?
Wilson: I think there were many reasons. It's hard for me to speculate. I have ideas. Young women at that time and in those social [positions] really couldn't do anything but get married. They were not helped or encouraged to go out on their own, much less into theatre. It was really not approved of. It would take an enormous amount of strength to do that. Socialites — it's another world. And then her mother was this artist, and Edie was an artist. I think in some ways she couldn't break away from her mother. That's why the play is so interesting — there are many different levels, and there's some mystery to it.

Q: How demanding is doing the show eight times a week?
Wilson: Well, it doesn't feel demanding when I'm doing it, but boy I'm wiped out during the day! It's the emotional [demands] maybe.

Q: Going back a bit, I wanted to talk about the Gypsy revival and what it was like working with Angela Lansbury.
Wilson: She came to the show last night. She's so wonderful . . . [Gypsy] was terrific. This woman is top-drawer. She never forgets the other actors. We were on tour for six months, and there was never a town where we opened that she didn't have a party for the actors. We were fed and given drink.

Q:You were also her standby. Did you ever get to go on as Rose?
Wilson: I did. It was the most terrifying time in my whole life. I knew I was going to go on. It was an extra performance that [Lansbury couldn't do.] Oh my God, it was awful, but it came out all right. The audience was filled with actors because it was a special matinee, so that was helpful. Angela had one word of advice for me: "Breathe!" Breath is everything. Having enough breath is everything. [Laughs.]

Q: Edith seems to be the opposite of Rose. She doesn't want her daughter to do anything . . .
Wilson: But I think Big Edie loves Little Edie. I hope that's apparent in the show. She cares about her.

Q: Do you have a favorite theatrical experience so far?
Wilson: Doing Full Gallop was a big, big thing for me, the Diana Vreeland show. I think she's my favorite character of all time.

Q: Do you have any other projects in the works?
Wilson: No, this is enough. [Laughs.] This is a nice, big nourishing fat meal for an actor.

[Grey Gardens plays the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street; for tickets call (212) 239-6200.] FOR THE RECORD

Nancy Anderson: "Ten Cents a Dance"
There is something about the quality of Nancy Anderson's voice that makes a listener smile—perhaps it's the sunny sound of her rangy lyric soprano or the devil-may-care attitude that infuses many of her interpretations or maybe it’s the palpable sense of joy that permeates her more upbeat songs. Whatever the reason, that unique sound can now thankfully be heard on Anderson's debut solo recording, "Ten Cents a Dance," which is available on the Thoroughbred Music label. For her debut disc, Anderson has chosen to wrap her shimmering tones around the songs of the twenties and thirties, an appropriate choice for the two-time Drama Desk nominee, whose vocal stylings are reminiscent of singers of that bygone era.

Backed by Danny Whitby on piano and Ross Patterson and his Little Big Band, Anderson offers a mix of rarities ("I'm So in Love with You," "Alibi Baby") and well-known standards ("My Romance," "But Not for Me" and "It Never Entered My Mind"), performing all 15 tracks with intelligence and musical flair. The actress, seen on Broadway in A Class Act, kicks off her recital with a toe-tapping take on the little-heard "The Trouble With Me Is You." Other highlights include the catchy "You're Giving Me a Song and a Dance," the lovely, bittersweet ballad "True Blue Lou," a lilting "My Romance" and touching versions of "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" and the disc’s title track.

[Anderson will celebrate the release of her CD with Nov. 14 and 28 shows at the Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd Street. The 9:30 PM concerts will feature musical direction by Ross Patterson and Danny Whitby. There is a $25 music charge and a two-drink minimum; call (212) 206-0440 for reservations.]

Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
The late Jacques Brel wrote some of the most emotionally compelling songs of the 20th century, songs that dealt primarily with loss: loss of innocence, loss of love and loss of life. Though his songs probed the darker, grimmer aspects of life, they also celebrated life and, especially, the power of love. The Belgian-born composer, who recorded primarily in French, gained recognition in this country thanks to a 1968 revue entitled Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which featured English lyrics by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman. The acclaimed revue, which played a lengthy run at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, is now back in New York at the Zipper Theatre in a wonderful new production directed by Gordon Greenberg.

Interpreters of Brel must be willing to dig deep into their emotional reserves and sing from the gut, and thankfully the cast of the Brel revival features four talented singing actors: Gay Marshall, Robert Cuccioli, Natascia Diaz and Rodney Hicks (the latter has since departed the production). A cast recording of the new Brel production will be released Nov. 21 by Ghostlight Records, and most affecting is Marshall, an American actress who has spent much time performing in France. Marshall has been handed some of Brel's most powerful songs—"My Childhood," "Sons Of," "Ne Me Quitte Pas" and "Marieke"—and she delivers each thrillingly with a powerful belt. Just listen to the way she builds "My Childhood," charting early reminiscences that lead to a passionate remembrance of first love: “. . .and his first tender touch, my first taste of love. I wanted to fly. And I swear that I flew. My heart glowed like the sun.” Marshall, in fact, imbues all of her solos with a similar emotional intensity.

Other standouts include Cuccioli's "Song for Old Lovers," Diaz and Hicks' "No Love, You're Not Alone" and the rousing finale, "If We Only Have Love." The new Brel disc is, simply, one of the year's most enjoyable cast recordings.

Kelli O'Hara, the two-time Tony nominee most recently seen on Broadway in the award-winning revival of Pajama Game, will star in the Reprise! Broadway’s Best upcoming production of Sunday in the Park with George. O'Hara will play Dot, the role originated on Broadway by Bernadette Peters, in the limited engagement, which begins performances Jan. 31, 2007, at the UCLA's Freud Playhouse. Jason Alexander will direct the production with musical direction by Gerald Sternbach. Sunday in the Park will officially open Jan. 31 and play through Feb. 11. Tickets for the Reprise! production are available by calling (310) 825-2101. For more information visit www.reprise.org.

Sally Mayes, who received a Tony nomination for her work in She Loves Me, will return to the Metropolitan Room Nov. 16-18 with her new cabaret act Unwritten. The 8 PM performances will feature jazz, country and pop tunes, and Mayes will be backed by musical director Patrick Brady on piano and Bob Renino on bass. In a statement, the singing actress said, "The great thing about being a storyteller is that there is always another chapter." The Metropolitan Room is located in Manhattan at 34 W. 22nd Street. There is a $25 cover charge and a two-drink minimum; call (212) 206-0440 for reservations.

Several theatre and cabaret favorites will join Jeff Harnar during his upcoming show at Feinstein's at the Regency, which is entitled A Collective Cy: Jeff Harnar Sings Cy Coleman: Lee Roy Reams (Nov. 12), Liz Callaway (Nov. 13), Andrea Marcovicci (Nov. 19) and Karen Ziemba (Nov. 20). All four artists will perform a Coleman duet with Harnar, who will be backed by Alex Rybeck on piano, Jay Leonhart on bass, Ray Marchica on drums and Dan Willis on saxophone and flute. Cabaretgoers can also expect to hear tunes from Sweet Charity, City of Angels and Seesaw as well as such Coleman standards as "Witchcraft" and "The Best Is Yet to Come." Feinstein's at the Regency is located in Manhattan at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street. There is a $40 cover and a two-drink minimum for the 8:30 PM shows. For reservations, call (212) 339-4095 or visit www.feinsteinsattheregency.com.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

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