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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

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, 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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