`Blonde’ reborn, `Gardens’ truly gray

More from last week’s Broadway binge.

Couldn’t resist returning to see Legally Blonde at the Palace Theatre to see how the show had evolved since its January out-of-town tryout at the Golden Gate Theatre in San Francisco.

I’m happy to report that the show is in fantastic shape. Director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell (making his Broadway directorial debut) and his team – composer and lyricists Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book writer Heather Hach – have tightened things up and made some smart changes.

The biggest change is a new song, “Positive,” sung by the “Greek chorus” of sorority girls (Annaleigh Ashford, DeQuina Moore and Leslie Kritzer) and Elle Woods (Laura Bell Bundy). This replaces the number “Love and War” we saw out here.

Costumer Gregg Barnes has revamped almost the entire show, with especially fetching new designs for the sorority girls. And Elle’s fabulous pink finale dress – sort of Flashdance meets A Chorus Line – is accented with a lawyerly tie used as a sassy belt.

Bundy’s performance as Elle has sharpened considerably. She’s more knowing in her humor – sincere but with a certain self-awareness that makes it easier for us to laugh at her (and with her).

Orfeh as hairdresser Paulette has also warmed up. She’s funnier, and her big number, “Ireland,” finally gets its boffo Broadway ending. Orfeh’s real-life husband, Andy Karl, is still stealing scenes as Karl, the UPS guy who gets laughs with a walk (more of a “Hey, I’m Brown” strut).

If anything, Legally Blonde has turned into more of a crowd pleaser. The Friday-night audience I saw the show with was eminently pleased. A sign of things to come in that audience: a group of tween girls in pink T-shirts with “Harvard Law” stenciled on the front and “Class of 2022” on the back.

From the pink, happy world to the decidedly grim, gray world of another musical, Grey Gardens.

I have to give credit to book writer Doug Wright (Pulitzer Prize winner for I Am My Own Wife), composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie: they set out to create an intelligent, well-considered musical about the dark side of the American dream. And they succeeded.

Trouble is that the show didn’t involve me any way other than intellectually, and I found myself wishing I were watching the extraordinary documentary, Grey Gardens, that inspired the musical.

If you don’t know the story, go watch the DVD immediately. Failing that, I’ll give you the short version: Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s aunt, Edith Bouvier Beale, and her cousin, Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, were at one time the cream of East Hampton, but by 1972, the two ladies were living in their family manse, called Grey Gardens, whch was condemned by the Suffolk County Board of Health in 1972. That’s when famous cousin Jackie (then Onasis) stepped in to help them out. In 1974, Albert and David Maysles spent six weeks filming the Beales and their cats and raccoons and craziness.

The musical takes a fictional leap into the past to imagine what life was like at Grey Gardens in 1941, when Little Edie was a dazzling debutante and Big Edie was a quirky patron of the arts with a rich, philandering husband.

Act 1 attempts to show us Big Edie’s tremendous jealousy of her daughter’s beauty (and beaux) and Little Edie’s suffering at the hands of her mother’s passive aggressive smackdowns.

Act 2 gives us the Beales we saw in the movie and quotes, often verbatim, lines spoken by the real women in the documentary.

I’m told the reason to see Grey Gardens is for the central performance by Christine Ebersole, who plays vibrant Big Edie in Act 1 and mentally unbalanced Little Edie in Act 2. After missing performances and taking a well-deserved break from the show, Ebersole was back in action for the matinee I saw.

She puts on quite a show and sings beautifully. But to my mind, her performance has become mannered caricature of caricature. Her imitation of Little Edie in Act 2, complete with the crazy outfits she fashioned for herself from anything she could get her hands on, is uncanny. But it’s just that: an imitation.

Mary Louise Wilson as bed-bound Big Edie gives a more realistic performance, but we never quite understand how the beautiful, intelligent (albeit psychologically tormented) woman in Act 1 could be come such a mess in 30 years.

Same is true of Little Edie – it seems the most interesting part is in the middle when she attempts to live independently in New York and begin a show-biz career but then gets sucked back into her mother’s psychosis.

There are also issues of mental illness here that are never addressed (nor are they addressed in the film), which can make laughing at these women and their sad plight uncomfortable.

My favorite number is the Act 2 opener “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” performed by Ebersole. Her big ballad, “Another Winter In a Summer Town,” is lovely, but it seems too knowing – how can Little Edie be so self-aware and sad and so crazy? It’s possible, but we’re not given enough insight to really believe it.

One thought on “`Blonde’ reborn, `Gardens’ truly gray

  1. Looking forward to seeing the changes to Blonde this weekend! I’m glad to hear that the buzz is good.

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