As Little Edie and Big Edie, Cathy Barnett Steps into 'Grey Gardens'

Cathy Barnett is a kick in the ass. Joyfully verbose, wickedly funny and incessantly animated, Barnett, one of Kansas City’s favorite performers, will star in the Unicorn Theatre’s upcoming musical Grey Gardens.

Opening Jan. 29, Grey Gardens, a lesser-known 2007 Broadway show, focuses on the downward spiral of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, the aunt and first cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The Beales were rich, socially prominent women who, over several decades, lost their fortune but stubbornly refused to leave their crumbling, vermin-infested Long Island mansion. They were profiled in a 1975 documentary and in this year’s HBO film featuring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, who won an Emmy for her performance. Both of these productions were also called Grey Gardens.

Barnett’s natural comedic energy is a perfect fit for the show, something Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn’s producing artistic director, saw early on. Barnett recounted in a recent interview with Camp: “Cynthia called me, it was almost exactly a year ago — it was January — and she said ‘Would you like to do it?’ ”.

At the time, though, Barnett admits to slight confusion about which show she was being asked to do, not surprising considering that Grey Gardens never achieved national prominence.

“I really didn’t know anything about the Beales. … I remember Christine Ebersole [who played Little Edie on Broadway> doing “The Revolutionary Costume of Today” at the Tonys. I remember seeing her do that number and really not [knowing"> what it was about, not realizing it was based on a true story.”

Later, after she rented the documentary, Barnett says, “I just got Little Edie right away. I sort of felt like Little Edie a lot of the times — I sort of think I look like her. …You want to say that these women are crazy, but they’re not. … When she dumps a load of dog food for the raccoons up in the attic, it just doesn’t seem weird. It just seems like ‘If I were here, I guess I would feed the raccoons, too’…I don’t know, I just get ’em.”

The Unicorn production will certainly throw a bit of a curveball Barnett’s way: As in the original Broadway production, she will be performing dual roles of a sort—in Act 1 she sings as Big Edie in the ‘40s, then in Act 2 she sings some of the show’s standout numbers as Little Edie in the ‘70s.
“So [while"> the actor in me is all juiced up, the singer in me is scared crapless,” she says. Technically, it’s a very difficult show.”

Not only does the show feature dozens of musical numbers for Barnett to tackle, but, in performing as both mother and daughter, she must produce two completely different vocal styles. In Act 1, as the mother, she uses a more traditional operatic style, rich in vibrato. “And then, in Act 2, you really get a lot of that [Little"> Edie, where she’s almost talk-singing. But then she goes into this beautiful, lyrical head voice.”

You could say that performing is in Barnett’s blood. “Well, first of all, my great-grandmother was an actress on the Orpheum circuit,” she explains. “I have pictures from her from the 1890s.”

In her immediate family, Barnett was the youngest of four, and the only girl.

“I was raised on the Kansas side, went to Shawnee Mission North High School, went to KU. … When I started doing theater, which was eighth grade, it was like a second coming.” And from that beginning, her choice of roles has been unusual.
always played older roles, always. I was Dolly Levi when I was 19. One of my favorite [roles"> was … in Company. I was Joanne, who’s supposed to be about a 60-year-old character. … And then I went to college and I was the old lady in Candide.”

After college she moved to New York, where she explored standup comedy, helped by comedian Lewis Black.

“He gave me my break,” she says of Black. “I think he is brilliant. … Standup was great, it’s just a very lonely business.”

So, after 10 years in New York, and having married there, Barnett “hit 30 and felt the pull of ‘I think I want a kid,’ all of that. … Dan [Barnett’s husband"> had actually done his master’s at UMKC, so he knew Kansas City and loved it. … And I said, ‘Well, my mom’s still in Kansas City,’ and he said ‘Let’s go.’ And so that was an easy decision.”

But Barnett admits, “I really wasn’t going to pursue theater when I came back here — it pursued me.”

A production of Gerard Alessandrini’s comedy franchise Forbidden Broadway came to Kansas City and cast locally.

“I got in that, and that was one of the best things that ever happened to me, because I got to go around the world on three different ships. That show was really good to me. … It’s been incredible — I’ve worked consistently since I moved back here.”

Barnett has also profited from the area’s large corporate base. Hallmark, Sprint and even Garmin, the navigational systems company, have all used her voice-over talents in one way or another.

One role that endeared her to the local gay community is “when I got to be Judy Garland for the Heartland Men’s Chorus — that was another incredible experience. But it was so crazy because a hundred gay men are asking me to play Judy Garland, and I’m like ‘Are you out of your mind?’… Any one of them could dress up and look better than me!”

So it seems there isn’t much that Barnett hasn’t done in her performing career. And the challenging dual roles she’ll play in Grey Gardens for the Unicorn should be a high point. But it just might bring her closer to a fate she jokes about toward the end of the interview:

“I don’t care what the role is, I’d like to die onstage. I’d like to have the big, you know, ‘Is she all right?’ ‘No, she’s dead.’ ‘Oh, God, what a performance, that was fabulous!’ ”

Grey Gardens previews Jan. 27 and 28 at the Unicorn Theatre, opens Friday, Jan. 29 and plays through Feb. 28. Call 816-531-PLAY or visit www.unicorntheatre.org for tickets and more information."

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