Grey Gardens

a kate west review
book by Doug Wright; music by Scott Frankel
lyrics by Michael Korie
directed by Michael Greif
musical staging by Jeff Calhounat
the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th Street
New York, NY 10036
running November 2006 - June 2007
contact (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7780 OR

In 1975, brother filmmakers Albert and David Maysles ( premiered "Grey Gardens", which chronicled six weeks at the decaying 48-room mansion Grey Gardens, in East Hampton. Home of former Bouvier socialites, both named Edith Bouvier Beale ("Big" and Little" Edie, mother and daughter), it is now considered a cultural icon and inspiration for much discussion and controversy. Groundbreaking in documentary films, "Grey Gardens" was part of the cinema verite style that would soon become vogue. The new Broadway musical "Grey Gardens" perfectly captures the two women's fascinating eccentricities and ferocious characters so well documented in the film, although the structure is a tad rough around the edges.

Director Michael Greif, in collaboration with Doug Wright (Book), Scott Frankel (Music) and Michael Korie (Lyrics), creates an innovative take on a familiar story, surprisingly adaptable to a musical score.We are able to speculate on the two Edies' early history in 1941 in the first act, where the mother once again drives away an appropriately high-class suitor to her daughter. Obsessed with her own musical career, the mother spends all her time rehearsing and cultivating a relationship with her accompanist George Gould Strong (Bob Stillman), rather than her daughter (Erin Davie in the first act). A glimpse into the pre-Camelot era also reveals the young niece Jackie Bouvier (a.k.a. First Lady/Jackie O as played by Sarah Hyland) and sister Lee Bouvier (Abigail Ferenczy in this performance) who are enchanted by their aunt's outrageous antics. The grandfather, Major Bouvier (John McMartin), is appalled at the convention-defying women in his family, especially his daughter (who sings the vulgar "Hominy Grits"), thus representing traditional society's rejection, as does young Edie's handsome young fiancée, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. (Matt Cavenaugh) who cannot bear to live with the shame of a wayward wife.The two Beales women are really the heart and soul of the piece.

Christine Ebersole beautifully embodies the mother ("Big" Eddie) in the first act set in 1941, as well as brilliantly channeling the daughter ("Little" Edie) in the second Act amidst the crumbling decay of the 1973 Grey Gardens mansion. She is ultimately worthy of every theatrical award you can throw at her, not to mention a sure bet for a Tony. And Mary Louise Wilson is a wonderful maternal counterpart in the second act as "Big" Eddie; the way they over-talk each other and push emotional buttons is a veritable mirror of the film. It is almost heart-rending to learn that "Little" Edie used to be the talk of town, the "It" girl, referred to as Body Beautiful. She does not evoke pity, however, being of "staunch" character, leaving her mother and absent father (who divorces the family via telegram) in Act One, only to heroically return to aid her ailing mother decades later, in Act Two.

Though not an absolute requirement, it is definitely helpful to have seen the film before watching the musical, in order to share the joy of remembered lines with enthusiastic patrons and to relish in the actors' skill at impersonation. Plus, the complete personality changes and seemingly abject ruin in the second act might not come as such a shock. It will come across very uneven. As in the film, there are many years-long gaps in the story since the subjects were so externally dramatic and open, yet not as revealing of personal history. It is also interesting to see how the producers deal with the earlier cinematic devices. For instance, in the film, the women address the two filmmakers, but in the musical, they address the hired help, either Brooks (Michael Potts portrays the father in the first act and the next generation in the second) and Jerry (Matt Cavenaugh) and us, of course.

There are many lyrical songs invoking the mystique of the place, including "Entering Grey Gardens" in which the supporting cast drifts onstage like released ghosts, echoing the meowing of the many cats running rampant in the house. As Mama Beale, Mary Louise Wilson sings "Jerry Likes My Corn", a plaintive little ballad wistfully remarking that Jerry appreciates her more than her own daughter does. And Christine Ebersole begins the second half with "The Revolutionary Costume for Today" in scarf and upside-down skirt, a most quintessential "Little"Edie. She longs to leave Grey Gardens, but can never quite make it past the front door. She cannot leave her mother and they are tied together forever. Many people see these women as nutty, but both the filmmakers and the Broadway producers show them in a loving and admiring light. From "Little" Edie's triumphant military march ("The House We Live In") to "Big" Edie's trademark "Will You", the two leads demand respect and sympathy from the audience and we give it gladly. The two women are sublime and the rest of the cast strong.

As an added bonus, Costume Designer William Ivey Long captures the fashionable idiosyncrasies very well and Scenic Designer Allen Moyer's revolving sets create the eerily dank mood of the mansion. There are even some film clips, thanks to Projection Designer Wendall K. Harrington to further reference the popular story.

Whatever the shortcomings of the actual history and the unfulfilling gaps, it is well worth the price of admission, if only to see Christine Ebersole's incredible transformation and character diversity. Fans of the film will be in seventh heaven; so again, you might want to see the film first. And ladies, if you are worried about spinsterhood and cats, take heart at these trendsetters, who at least make them interestingly fashionable.

The Original:
Grey Gardens - Criterion Collection

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