‘Grey Gardens” is even better on Broadway than it was during its sensational run Off-Broadway last season at Playwrights Horizons. And the astonishing performance of Christine Ebersole is even more so in this tightened up, gussied up, and slightly re-cast production. There is a distinct and devout group of people who have found the eccentric behavior and life-style of “Little” Edie Beale and her mother, Edith Bouvier, to be eminently worthy of their attention and adoration. It is incontestably a cult following. In 1975, Edie, a cousin, and Edith, an aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, were made the subjects of an unsparing, uncompromising documentary made by David and Albert Maysles. They ventured into the musty decaying mansion to observe these reclusive women, one nuttier than the other, as they lived, in the loosest sense of the word.
The only thing missing in the film was the stench of cat urine that reportedly permeated the once grand manor in East Hampton, the one-time family residence and gathering place for the rich and famous. Grey Gardens has been turned into a hugely entertaining musical about a pair of eccentrics. Its collaborators, Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (composer), and Michael Korie (lyrics), have reverentially and wittily re-imagined these two neurotic recluses as they were in two different time periods.
The musical departs from the contained structure of the documentary as it provides a peek into the lives of “Little Edie” and her mother, Edith, in 1941 and again in 1973. Act 1 audaciously presents an engaging portrait of them as rivals and as attention-getters among the gentry of high society in 1941. Despite the warning signs, and there are plenty of them, their social graces, particularly the reckless romantic adventuring of “Little Edie,” border on the unacceptable. In Act I Edie is played by Erin Davie, a charmer who makes a strong impression as the debutante known somewhat scandalously as “the body beautiful,” living in the shadow of her upstaging mother. No less an oddity, Edith, a soprano with aspirations, used her numerous and lengthy living room recitals as a means of getting adulation and securing the spotlight away from Edie.
Following a prologue that briefly but poignantly gives us a glimpse into the future of these unconventional women, Act I reveals a bright, sparkling, and fancifully idiotic depiction of grand and giddy living, the kind only seen in a Cole Porter musical. That’s fine and dandy, especially as the composers Frankel and Korie cleverly drop their valentine to Porter in Act II and replace it with underscoring and songs that reflect the change in era as well as the change in the temperament of the women.
And what could be more of a change, and more of a stunning conceit, than to have the incomparable Christine Ebersole play mother Edith, the glamorous, self-aggrandizing society diva in Act I and then the dotty, delusional but absurdist fashion maven Edie in Act II.
In Act II the wonderful Mary Louise Wilson assumes the role of the mostly bed-confined but still demoralizing and demanding Edith. The contrasting halves of the musical may be stylistically and purposefully different but under the excellent direction of Michael Grief, they come from the same warmly loopy perspective. Wright, who provided such psychologically insightful aspects to “I Am My Own Wife” has done as much for “Grey Gardens.” The complementary craziness of both “Little” and “Big” Edies could not have been entrusted to two more gifted actors than Ebersole and Wilson.
Act I takes place on the day of Edie’s engagement party. A grand piano dominates the elegant parlor for the pleasure of Edith and her devoted and swishy live-in confidante cum accompanist (played with consummate elan a la Noel Coward by Bob Stillman). With every top note and turn of phrase, Ebersole owns the stage. Matt Cavenaugh creates a credible Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., whose engagement to the overly eager Edie is fated to take a turn for the worse. A crafty bit of double casting finds Cavenaugh in Act II playing the 17-year-old Jerry, the women’s sole friend and fetcher. Jerry is also audience to Edie’s dream of being a Broadway star. No Yankee Doodle Dandy comes close to the hilariously executed flag-waving and military drilling that Ebersole performs for Jerry in “The House We Live In.” The man behind this number and all the terrific musical staging is Jeff Calhoun.
Aside from Edie’s resolve in the presence of her autocratic mother, her life-long attempt to escape from Edith’s hold on her is given considerable poignancy, as the musical arrives at its inevitable and heartbreaking conclusion. Youngsters Sarah Hyland, as Jackie, and Kelsey Fowler, as Lee, offer a delightful glimpse at the two who will, indeed, wear the mantle of highest society. John McMartin is impressive as ever appearing as J.V. “Major” Bouvier and Norman Vincent Peale.
Set designer Allen Moyer has evoked both a place of grandeur and excess and in Act II a place of grievous deprivation and decay. And the always astonishing William Ivey Long has designed costumes that range from ooh ah to outre. Long is virtually Ebersole’s partner in the Act II opening in which she sings “The Revolutionary Costume for Today.” This is a show-stopper that may be one of the funniest numbers in the history of the American musical comedy. Edie is known to have started a trend for bizarre fashion. In the end we are not left with a sense of being in the company of two ridiculous women but instead being caught in the middle of a bittersweet yet self-defeating relationship between a mother and a daughter. “Grey Gardens” is undoubtedly destined to become a popular as well as a cult favorite on its own. ***.