“A man in a passion, rides a mad horse.” This phrase, penned by Benjamin Franklin, has been the underscoring expression behind Mad Horse Theatre’s 28-year mission to bring thought-provoking, soul-enriching theater to Maine.

The black-box theater continues to demonstrate out-of-the-box thinking as it closes out its season with the Maine premiere of “Grey Gardens.” Director Ray Dumont grabs the artistic reins, unleashing a breed of theater rarely seen at Mad Horse: a musical.

This is the first time in 17 years that Mad Horse has ventured into the realm of musical theater. The music is fantastically fun window dressing, but the heart of the production is a play in line with Mad Horse’s ongoing mission.

“Grey Gardens” is based on the lives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ eccentric aunt and cousin, Edith Bouvier Beale and “Little” Edie Beale. The story follows their fall from highbrow aristocrats in 1941 to destitute social pariah, living in squalor in 1973. Christine Louise Marshall and Anna Gravel portray the mother and daughter respectively in 1941, and Susan Reilly and Marshall take on the roles in 1973.

“Entering Grey Gardens” provides the audience with a creative cat’s-eye view of the once beautiful estate, now little more than a “28-room litter box.” The ensemble is cleverly cast in the song as the house’s resident cats.

Anyone who has seen a Mad Horse production knows just how intimate and personal the theater’s performances are. There is no pit for the musicians and no backstage. Costume changes have to be done in a black curtained area in the lobby and the audience has to leave the performance area at intermission to allow for a set change.

It’s admittedly hard to imagine a musical at Mad Horse, but “Grey Gardens” is actually a good fit. It’s an unconventional piece, with most of the songs springing from dialogue. There is choreography involved, but both the choreography and the music are organically tied into the events of the story. There aren’t any flashy sidebar numbers included purely for entertainment.

That’s not to say “Grey Gardens” isn’t entertaining. It’s a treat to see Marshall, Mad Horse’s artistic director, and Nicholas Schroeder, a musical first-timer who plays Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. and Jerry, showcase their versatility in diverse musical roles.

Patrons of the American Irish Repertory Ensemble have likely heard Susan and Tony Reilly sing an Irish ditty in plays, but don’t usually hear them belt out musical numbers. Susan Reilly is evocative as the elder Edith and Tony Reilly commands the stage as Edith’s father, J.V. “Major” Bouvier.

David Jon Timm brings out the comic undertones of the musical as Edith’s piano accompanist, George Gould Strong. He and Marshall play off each other beautifully in Act I, with Thomas Smallwood adding zest as the Beale’s charismatic butler, Brooks.

Rose Cannon and Blair Carpenter round out the cast as Edith’s nieces, Lee and Jacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier. Cannon, age 13, is particularly noteworthy for her powerful vocals, which are mature beyond her years.

“Grey Gardens” is both heart-wrenching and wonderfully quirky. The insightful story explores societal expectations, offering the audience a look at how society all too often unfavorably treats those who march to a different beat – such as a gay man, or strong willed women.

Another poignant theme is the common fear that many people have of ending up alone, caring for an elderly parent. “Little” Edie’s pain and neuroses strike an emotional cord as she goes from the girl with everything, to a middle-aged woman who has nothing. On the flip side, the audience connects with her mom as she desperately clings to her self-worth in “Jerry Likes My Corn.”

Mad Horse delivers a production that’s entertaining, but also maintains the food-for-thought quality that patrons have come to expect. It’s a passionate production, and Mad Horse offers an emotional ride.

April Boyle is a freelance writer from Casco. Contact her at

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