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This Broadway review by Simon Saltzman was published on the website of
U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 18, 2006. All rights reserved.
Review: ‘Grey Gardens’
Musicals come and musicals go but the terrific "Grey Gardens" will be
gone too fast. The word is that this limited run Playwrights Horizons
production has scant chance of transferring to Broadway. But those
lucky enough to see it will remember it fondly it as they will the
astonishing performance of Christine Ebersole. There is a distinct and
devout group of people who have found the eccentric behavior and
lifestyle 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.
As unstable and skewed as its subjects, "Grey Gardens" has been turned
into a vastly entertaining musical. 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," bordered on the unacceptable.
In Act I, Edie is played by Sara Gettelfinger with an unwitting
similarity to Cybill Shepherd’s cavorting in "At Long Last Love." They
were two peas in a pod, a pair of completely irresponsible,
self-absorbed personalities. 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 grotesquely metamorphosed 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. The
allusions to Porter’s "High Society (the film musical remake of The
Philadelphia Story) are unmistakable, especially in the infectious
songs — "Better Fall Out of Love" and the operetta-ish "Will You" —
that literally gush with affectations. If we didn’t know better, you
would swear that the score in Act 1 actually comes from a show written
in 1941. That’s fine and dandy, especially as the composers 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 Little 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 mother 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 complimentary 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 in the grand living on the day of Edie’s engagement
party. Even grander is the grand piano that dominates 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.
Gettelfinger, famously referred to as "Body Beautiful Beale," sings
and dances well enough but just misses creating the seed or the
fractured sensibility of the character that emerges in Act II.
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
heart-breaking conclusion. Youngsters Sarah Hyland, as Jackie, and
Audrey Twitchell, 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
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, including any of the classics associated with Bea Lillie, in
the history of the American musical theater. 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 cult favorite on its own. ****
— Simon Saltzman
@lt:"Grey Gardens," through April 30, Playwrights Horizons, 416
West 42nd Street. $65. 212-279-4200.
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