Review: `Grey Gardens’

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

Little Edie sings! `Grey Garden’s comes to TheatreWorks

Beth Glover is Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale in the TheatreWorks production of Grey Gardens, the first since the original closed on Broadway. Photo by David Allen

For Beth Glover, Grey Gardens is al all-you-can-Edie experience.

The veteran actress plays Big Edie and in Grey Gardens, the musical based on the 1975 documentary of the same name. In Act 1, set in 1941, Glover is the mother, Edith “Big Edie” Ewing Bouvier Beale. And in Act 2, set in 1973, she plays the daughter, Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale.

It’s a juicy pair of roles for an actress, and Glover is immersing herself in the world of the Beales for the TheatreWorks production of Grey Gardens that begins performances this week in Mountain View.

The Mississippi-born Glover remembers the first time she saw the documentary by brothers Albert and David Maysles. “When I moved to New York in the ’80s, any gay man worth his salt had a library of videotapes that comprised Rosalind Russell’s every word or movement. Barbra Streisand is a given amid this huge video library of stuff no one has ever seen. One of those things was Grey Gardens, and when I saw it, I freaked out. I had never seen anything like it.”

The documentary tells the story of mother Beale, aunt to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and her daughter who lived in their crumbling, flea- and vermin-infested East Hamptons mansion, dubbed Grey Gardens, with dozens of cats, raccoons and piles and piles of garbage.

“The Beales’ story depressed me at first,” Glover says, “but then I realized that these women were living the lives they chose and really bucking social conventions. In the documentary you can see, in essence, they don’t care. They make a little noise about it, but they don’t change at all. They do not change their behavior. They clean up a little because they were about to be thrown out and Jackie comes to the rescue, but they go right back to living with all the cats.”

The musical, with music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie and a book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife), opened off-Broadway in 2006 then transferred to Broadway later that year, where it one a Tony Award for Christine Ebersole, whose roles are being taken over by Glover at TheatreWorks in the first Grey Gardens production outside New York.

Turning a documentary into a musical is an unusual evolution, but Glover says it’s a “no brainer.”

“Big Edie and Little Edie loved music,” she says. “When Little Edie was told years ago that there was interest in creating a musical, she wrote, `My whole life was music and song. It made up for everything. Thrilled, thrilled, thrilled…With all I didn’t have, my life was joyous.'”

Her life was also kooky, as evidenced in the documentary by Little Edie’s, um, creative fashion choices – skirts on her head, scarves work as a skirt.

“What’s great about Edie is that even when she goes a little loopy, she’ll come right back and tell you what she’s done and what has happened,” Glover says. “She’s still self-aware. In the commentary on the documentary DVD, Albert says that Edie felt she had a break, a nervous break, a break from reality – whatever. It happened before she returned home, when she was in New York. That makes sense to me because her father was still alive and she was still trying to please him and still listening to her mother. Hers was not a personality that could handle that, and there was a seismic shift in her.”

Glover (above with Dale Soules as Big Edie) sites a scene in the documentary when Edie says to the camera, in effect, that she needs to “get it all together in my mind. I need an ordered life.”

And Glover points out that the only ordered thing in her life was her bed. “It’s always clean. There’s her order right there. Her mother’s bed is a total shithole, but Edie’s bed is immaculate. It’s not clean like we’d want a bed to be clean – it probably is full of fleas and redcoats. But there are no newspapers on it, no cat shit.”

More than just a documentary about the fall of American aristocrats, Grey Gardens, according to Glover, is universal because it wallows in “the road not taken.”

“Everybody’s got one of those,” Glover says. “You may say, `Thank God I didn’t take that road,’ but you still have that story back there.”

The other universal involves the mother-daughter relationship.

“When do you cut the apron strings?” Glover asks. “We all cut them at a different time. Edie kept trying. She didn’t know which way to go.”

At the end of the documentary, Edie says, “Uh, another winter. I hope mother doesn’t die. She’s a lot of fun.”

Glover points to that quote as one of Edie’s great moments of self-awareness, and it’s a moment that gets musicalized in the song “Another Winter in a Summer Town.”

In moments like that, Glover finds Edie “beautiful.”

“She’s so lovable,” Glover says. “There are moments when she sits and stews because her mother is taking all the attention or she’s focusing it (handyman) Jerry. We see Edie fight for attention constantly. She wants to be heard. We all understand that.”

Grey Gardens begins performances Wednesday, Aug. 20 and continues through Sept. 14 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are$26-$54. Call 650-903-6000 or visit for information.

Here’s a great clip of Little Edie in the documentary Grey Gardens:

TheatreWorks announces `Grey Gardens’ cast

Mountain View’s TheatreWorks will present the first post-Broadway production of the Tony Award-winning musical Grey Gardens, based on the documentary of the same name about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s quirky, reclusive relatives.

The cast has been announced, and in the role that won Christine Ebersole (above) a Tony on Broadway is Beth Glover, a veteran of touring companies such as All Shook Up, Dirty Blonde and Promises, Promises. In Act 1, Glover plays Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie), a quirky society matron married to Phelan Beale. In Act 2, she plays Edith and Phelan’s daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie), a truly odd woman who liked to wear a lot of clothing, none of it in its usual function (i.e., skirts on her head, shirts as a skirt, etc.).

Playing the elder Big Edie is Dale Soules, who understudied the role on Broadway and went on to play it when Mary Louise Wilson left the show. Also in the cast is Elisa Ven Duyne as Little Edie in her younger years (in Act 1), Nicholas Galbraith as Joe Kennedy (Act 1)/Jerry (Act 2), Michael Winther, Michael LeRoy Brown, Kathryn Foley, Carolyn Di Loreto, Isabella Wilcox and Paul Myrvold.

The musical opens in the 1940s, when the Beales entertained lavishly in their East Hampton estate, Grey Gardens. Act 2 finds Big Edie and Little Edie still living in a crumbling, raccoon-infested Grey Gardens as virtual hermits. These are the Beales the world came to know through the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, which inspired the musical, with a book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) and music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie.

Kent Nicholson directs the TheatreWorks production, which begins performances Aug. 20 and continues through Sept. 14. Tickets are $26-$64. Call 650-903-6000 or visit

Blame it on Broadway

This was the year that Elton John and Anne Rice’s musical Lestat bit the big one and High Fidelity was a sound no one wanted to hear.

Those of us who saw Lestat in its pre-Brodway run at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre knew the show had a stake through its heart from the get go. And as for High Fidelity (right), the sample songs on the show’s Web site were so boring it was hard to muster enthusiasm enough to dislike them. Another show with a boringly bland pop score, The Wedding Singer, made a respectable go of it but never reached hit status.

Bay Area folks should not be holding their breaths for a tour of Twyla Tharp’s take on Bob Dylan songs, The Times They Are A Changing. Our Theatre Dogs spies spotted a dog, and they were right. The circus-themed show is history.

Disney launched two new Broadway shows, and though Tarzan is still swinging, it failed to generate much in the way of buzz or critical accolades. Mary Poppins, on the other hand, generated big buzz and a full spectrum of reviews. To me, the most interesting Disney show didn’t open on Broadway. Finding Nemo: The Musical, began performances in Walt Disney World. This marks the first time Disney has taken a non-musical movie and turned it into a stage musical. This is a mini-theme park musical, but if all goes well (so far, buzz is good), we can expect to see Nemo, Marlin, Dory and friends swimming along Broadway.

Bay Area audiences can’t be surprised that A Chorus Line is proving to be a solid hit on Broadway. We saw the out-of-town preview, so we got a taste of what the new cast had to offer in this lively carbon copy version of the 1975 hit. With any luck, our next big pre-Broadway show, Legally Blonde, will be equally as exciting. We were also the first to see Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, and though the show that ended up on Broadway was pretty different than what we saw, it should be no surprise that the always charming Short found his audience. Though the show is closing in early January, it had a respectable run.

When I head to New York, the shows I most want to see are the musicals Grey Gardens and Spring Awakening and Tom Stoppard’s play cycle The Coast of Utopia at Lincoln Center. Can’t imagine any of those will head for the Bay Area in 2007, but we can dream, can’t we? Really wish I could have seen Meryl Streep in Mother Courage in Central Park.

So what Broadway hits might actually be making their way toward the Bay Area? There’s no confirmation of anything, but we might expect the musical The Color Purple to wend our way.

Looking ahead, there are a couple shows blinking brightly off in the distance. One is a legitimate source of excitement. Angela Lansbury returns to Broadway in Terrence McNally’s Deuce alongside Marian Seldes. The other is a warning sign pointing toward the May Broadway debut of Xanadu: The Musical, which features songs from the flop 1980 Olivia Newton-John movie of the same name. Rumors have Jane Krakowski, Cheyenne Jackson and Ben Vereen reprising roles they performed in workshops of the new musical.

I’m so excited

Things I’m excited about at the moment:

– The new Chorus Line cast recording (stay tuned for more on that one), which came out last week.

– Two off-Broadway musicals making their way to Broadway: Spring Awakening and Grey Gardens. The good folks at have posted a world-premiere video from Spring Awakening, a musical by Steven Sater and popster Duncan Sheik (I’m a big fan — interviewed him on his tour bus earlier this year). Watch the video for “The Bitch of Living” here.
This is the first I’ve heard of the score, and it sounds neither like High Fidelity nor Legally Blonde. It sounds like, well, Duncan Sheik, and that’s always good in my books. And the video is actually sort of funny in a Dead Poets Society-meets-‘N Sync -meets-Rock ‘n’ Roll High School sort of way. Very exciting.
On his blog, Sheik says he’s hoping for an early December release for the cast album.

As for Grey Gardens, I’ve only heard the cast album, but Act 2 sounds especially promising, and Christine Ebersole sounds better than ever. If you haven’t seen the documentary that inspired the musical, go rent it right now.

Audra McDonald’s “Live from Lincoln Center” concert last weekend on PBS. Like an idiot, I missed McDonald’s two-night stand at Bimbo’s in San Francisco. As she did at her SF gig, the luminous McDonald sang songs from her new CD, “Build a Bridge” (read my review here) as well as some musical theater chestnuts. My favorite track from the CD (and her most passionate performance in concert) is Laura Nyro’s “Tom Cat Goodbye.” My only disappointment with the show was that she didn’t sing Rufus Wainwright’s “Damned Ladies.”
Hard to complain too much when you consider the songs she did sing: “It Might As Well Be Spring,” “Hey Buds Below,” “When Did I Fall in Love?” and an “Edelweiss” to melt the hardest of hearts.