Opened Aug. 23, 2008 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
Beth Glover (left) is Big Edie and Elisa Van Duyne is Little Edie as they perform “Peas in a Pod” in Act 1 of the TheatreWorks production of the musical Grey Gardens. Photos by Mark Kitaoka
`Gardens’ at TheatreWorks is solid production of crumbling musical
The TheatreWorks production of Grey Gardens, the musical version of the 1975 documentary of the same name, has been billed as the first since the show closed on Broadway, but that’s not exactly true.
A production opened earlier this month at the Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts on Long Island. Whether that was a professional production or not, I couldn’t tell.
The TheatreWorks production that opened Saturday at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts under the direction of Kent Nicholson is definitely professional. It’s solidly performed by an able cast and designed to look very much like the Broadway production.
In other words, it’s a first-rate production of a really lousy musical.
I didn’t like the show much on Broadway, but the performances by Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson as a deeply tormented mother and daughter trapped by finances, circumstances and, possibly, mental illness, in a crumbling East Hampton, N.Y., mansion, were dazzling.
The original Grey Gardens documentary by the Maysles brothers is fascinating, and Edith Bouvier Beale (“Big Edie”) and her daughter, Edie Bouvier Beale (“Little Edie”), are like a train wreck you can’t help watching.
But did their story really need to be a musical?
Composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie and book writer Doug Wright saw the potential, but rather than re-create the Beales as we knew them in the movie, they attempted to give us the women’s back story and place their later, squalid years in context.
So, in Act 1, we see the gracious Beales. Big Edie (Beth Glover), is planning a party to announce her daughter’s (Elisa Van Duyne) engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. (Nicholas Galbraith), older brother of John F. Kennedy.
A singer who apparently never could resist the urge to mar an event with a recital, Big Edie plans a nine-song concert at the engagement party, much to Little Edie’s dismay.
We get hints about marital strife between Big Edie and her absent husband, Phelan, and we see the rift between Big Edie and her father, J.V. “Major” Bouvier (Paul Myrvold), caused by the daughter’s bohemian nature and her relationship with the fey piano player, George Gould Strong (Michael Winther).
The score of Act 1 is an uncomfortable mix of pastiche period songs (“The Girl Who Has Everything,” “Hominy Grits,” “Will You?”) and character-driven songs, the best of which is he simple, dramatic “Telegram Song” when Little Edie’s world comes crashing down on her.
Truth is, Act 1 should have been nothing more than a prologue. The first act is musically uninteresting and dramatically inert.
Act 2 takes us directly to the crumbled mansion Grey Gardens (terrific set by J.B. Wilson) and to the women as we knew them in the documentary. Little Edie (now played by Glover) is now wearing skirts on her head and blouses as a skirt. Big Edie (a soulful Dale Soules) is mostly confined to bed, and the rest of the cast (including Anthony J. Haney, Kathryn Foley and Carolyn Di Loreto, alternating in the role of Lee Bouvier with Isabella Wilcox), is reduced to playing the more than 60 cats that infested the mansion, back-up singers for Edie’s delusional dance number and a choir backing up Norman Vincent Peale.
The relationship between the Beale women is given emotional heft by Soules and Glover, and a scene where they fight is by far the best moment in the show, and, by the way, no one is singing.
But then you have to deal with musical moments such as “Jerry Likes My Corn,” which has to be one of the worst songs ever written for a musical.
There’s abundant melodrama in Act 2 as Little Edie attempts to muster the courage to leave Grey Gardens while a choir encourages her to “Choose to Be Happy,” and you just want to leave the theater, go home and watch the movie. Some artistic licenses should be revoked.
This is a fascinating story of American aristocracy brought low. But some of the best parts are left out – like that middle act, when Little Edie attempts to make it on her own in New York (1947-1952) but then comes home to her ever more isolated mother. How did the women of Act 1 become the women of Act 2? And what happened to Little Edie after Big Edie’s death in 1977? Well, part of that story involves her becoming something of a celebrity because of the documentary and becoming an honest-to-God cabaret singer in New York City (her reviews were terrible, but still).
The story of the Beales of Grey Gardens is a fascinating one, but the musical Grey Gardens is hardly the last word – or song – on the subject.
Grey Gardens continues through Sept. 14 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $26-$64. Call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.