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Monday, December 30, 2013

Edie Beale: Live at Reno Sweeney at 54 Below

It was very appropriate that Jeffrey Johnson performed his recreation of Little Edie's 1978 stage show at Reno Sweeney, as New Year's Eve neared, in the swank, subterranean cabaret trappings beneath the old Studio 54 in Manhattan, with its disco party ghosts, to a packed house.

I attended the 1978 show at the now-legendary West Village cabaret (I was but a child at the time; my mother took me) and saw the real Edith Beale perform. I distinctly recall the cruel derision she received from her audience at the time; not at all like the climactic, upbeat apotheosis at the end of the HBO movie version of Grey Gardens.

Mr Johnson's theatrical channeling of Edie might best be described as campy but very much inexact.

For one thing, the show is largely filled with frequently fact-based but often speculative monologues about Edie's life in long, tragi-comic rectitals. In the real deal, the rather shy performer nervously went from song to song without much patter.

It was my privilege to sit with Jerry, the Marble Faun of the original documentary movie, Grey Gardens, at the show. Speaking to him afterwards, Jerry Torre told me he found the evening to be "fun" and a "nice tribute to the memory of Edie" and that he felt Johnson did a good job of "keeping Edie's spirit alive."

The real Beale deal
"I'm going to sing a song Mother hated," Jeffrey-as-Edie announced before tackling "Lili Marlene." The song list for this show included "Tea for Two," "As Time Goes By" and "Auld Lang Syne." (I recall Edie opening her act in '78 with "Don't Throw Bouquets at Me.")

There was a periodic and off-stage Q&A read to Edie from index cards that had been distributed to the crowd prior to the show. Jeffrey Johnson's replies were often clever and funny, displaying his improvisational skills and his ability to think on his open-toe heels.

Johnson's characterization of Little Edie was more bold and strident than the real-life demure socialite on whom it is based. Edie certainly did not break down onstage discussing the Grey Gardens estate. And Johnson's voice and accent failed to satisfy even if the patrician lingo sounded spot on.

In short, if you're simply looking for an evening of camp pleasure and some laughs, you might enjoy this act. If, however, you want something more in the way of verisimilitude, this may might not be your cup of tea for two.

L to R: Dj Buddy Beaverhausen, Richard Skipper, Jerry Torre (The Marble Faun)

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