HOLLYWOOD—“Grey Gardens,” the musical version of the story of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, “Little Edie” Beale, written by Doug Wright, starts with a prologue introduced by the elder in 1973, played by Betty Buckley. It then jumps back in time to 1941, with the younger Edie played by Sarah Hunt, and the older played by Rachel York. First, we see the opulence of their earlier lives in the palatial estate in East Hampton, NY, then we see their dire downfall and demise, when everything changes.
In Act 2, Buckley finally reappears as “Big Edie,” and York takes a striking star turn to transform to “Little Edie,” now in her 50s. York chews up the scenery like the raccoons who’ve eaten away at the walls of Grey Gardens, she purrs like one of the 52 cats who now inhabit the residence, she is off-kilter like all the falling picture frames on the walls. Like all the trash neglectfully strewn about the property, she’s been ripped up, wadded into a ball, and tossed aside by both her mother and society.
Buckley, like any grand matriarch, has to do less to devour even more of the scenery. Both actors are hungry, and it’s clear they are relishing their roles. Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson both won the Tony Award in the same roles in the 2006 Broadway production. Drew Barrymore won a Golden Globe and a SAG award as Little Edie, Jessica Lange an Emmy as Big Edie, in the 2009 HBO film. Although the real-life counterparts are so tortured, these are parts actors live for, and Rachel York and Betty Buckley are climbing the ivy-covered garden walls along with all who preceded them.
The earlier story is a dramatic creation, the latter, a virtual recreation of the documentary, “Grey Gardens,” released in 1976 by David and Albert Maysles. Still and live video projections (designed by Jason H. Thompson) are used in a creative way, to merge the concept of it being a live depiction of the making of the film. The camera man and boom operator follow the women about the stage. The simultaneous video projection works a bit like watching the screens at the Hollywood Bowl, allowing audiences the stage-viewing experience, while also offering them a few nuanced close-up emotions on the screen.
This worked particularly well to enhance the inner thoughts of the “friend,” Jerry (also played by Josh Young). Most of the audience probably wouldn’t have caught his comic double takes without the video screening, which allowed for more laughs.
Big Edie and Little Edie clearly have a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that causes their inertia. There is a love evident, but a twisted, stifling one. Big Edie wanted to be a cabaret singer. She wanted freedom. This history was repeated by Little Edie as she aged. At first, we meet two independent and determined women, and though Big Edie was married, it was unhappily so.
York, at first as Big Edie, is sashaying around, singing her ditties, accompanied by her confidant, George Gould Strong (played with the requisite style by Bryan Batt), and Hunt as Little Edie, as the confident debutante, is fussing about, prepping for her engagement party to Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (Josh Young). Both women display an independence and lack of need for a man. Big Edie says things like, “marriage is for tax codes and Mormons, not freethinkers, like ourselves,” and, “I don’t think people should get married. I don’t believe in it at all…. I’d take a dog over a man, any day.” And the audience laughs and applauds. And yet, the women both end up alone, lonely, dependent upon each other, rather than any man, and living in squalor. Perhaps things would have been different if they’d gotten a man and a dog instead of 52 cats.
It’s an intriguing story, but it will never be clear what’s fact and what’s fiction, what is their own personal delusion, or what stories they themselves have come to believe, due to their lack of touch with reality. The answers will probably never be set in stone, as there’s no black and white in Grey Gardens. Both Edies deceive themselves, and warp their realities for each other. Did Joseph P Kennedy, Jr. really propose to Little Edie? Is it possible she would have ended up with him, had he not perished in WWII? The answers really don’t matter, in fact, to the point of the musical. It is, after all, not a history lesson, but a drama set to music for the stage. As such, it is entertaining, but a bit bitter sweet in that it ends up being a comedy, about two truly tragic characters.
Interestingly, a review of Rachel York’s prior performance in East Hampton said, “Her voice sometimes sounded frayed” (Laura Collins-Hughes). The same could be said now, but it was clear within a few notes that she “owns” that frayed vocal quality, and not only that, that it becomes a choice. With each song, it the vocal nuances of York became clear, above the song itself. She made very specific choices, specific to the character, and to the moment. Intonation and dialect changed, per song.
With musical direction by Kevin Stites, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, the music generally worked for the moment, as the characters glided through their story, but little of it was as memorable as the characters themselves. Several songs could have been cut (and that was said about earlier incarnations of “Grey Gardens,” so clearly no gardener was hired for trimming). Maybe that was intentional, to add to the atmosphere of overgrowth.
Michael Wilson’s direction is well-tended and tidy, keeping everything clipped and precise. Sarah Hunt is lovely as the younger Edith in Act 1, though, be it her as an actor, or the character as written, the younger version of young Edie doesn’t seem to show enough of the seed of insanity that was planted in Grey Gardens. Simon Jones and Davon Williams round out the cast along with the young children, led by Katie Silverman as the charmingly still-a-bit awkward young Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy before she hit her stride.
Buckley, and particularly York, give luster to “Grey Gardens,” and the stage version vividly paints the picture that the making of the documentary finally gave these two women their raison d’etre. They lit up for the camera then, and these actresses light up the Beales another notch for the stage.
Directed by Michael Wilson
Choreographer Hope Clarke
Music Director Kevin Stiles
“Grey Gardens,” based on the film Grey Gardens
Book by Doug Wright, Music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie
AT THE AHMANSON
THROUGH AUGUST 14, 2016
Performance Days and Times:
• Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m.
• Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.
• Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.
• No performance on Monday
Exceptions: Added 2 p.m. performance on Thursday, August 11. No 6:30 p.m. performance on Sunday, August 14.
Ticket Prices: $25 – $130 (Ticket prices are subject to change.)
Tickets are available
• Online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
• By calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.972.4400
• In person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Music Center
Group sales: 213.972.7231
Deaf community information and charge: visit CenterTheatreGroup.org/ACCess.
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre