Christine Ebersole received a Drama Desk Award, an Obie, an Outer Critics Circle Award, a special citation from NY Drama Critics, and the Drama League Award last season for her towering performance in the limited run off Broadway production of Grey Gardens, set in a 28 room mansion in East Hampton. If you weren’t lucky enough to see this sublime actress in her awe inspiring portrayal, count your lucky stars, because the musical inspired by the Maysles brother’s 1975 cult documentary of the same name has opened on Broadway.
The story is based on East Hampton’s notorious recluses, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Little Edie, the "It Girl" of her generation; often referred to as Big Edie and Little Edie, they were known to the world as the aunt and cousin, respectively of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. They lived in a flea infested residence on West End Road off Georgica Beach with 52 cats and assorted raccoons.Turning a film about an eccentric mother and daughter living amongst decrepit squalor into a Broadway musical seems like an impossible task, but the creative team behind Grey Gardens has done a first rate job. The inventive staging flawlessly directed by Michael Greif has been improved upon since its premiere with subtle changes that clarify the women’s unique love/hate relationship. The absorbing book by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) is a thought provoking, even fascinating study of the women’s indomitable spirits that begins with a prologue set in 1973. Mr. Wright then expands upon the documentary with a first Act that goes back 32 years to a fictionalized summer day in 1941, when Grey Gardens was in its glorious heyday. Little Edie, now played charmingly by Erin Davie in the musical’s only cast change, was a young debutante then, a star in the social register known to members of the Maidstone Club as "The Body Beautiful."
When the act begins, we discover Edith Bouvier Beale played superbly by Christine Ebersole in the elegant living room, where she is rehearsing with her musical accompanist played by Bob Stillman, the songs she will sing that day at Little Edie’s engagement party to Joseph Patrick Kennedy. Matt Cavenaugh is convincing as the young Kennedy, who is madly in love with Little Edie, and his performance has grown in stature. The act ends with the younger Edie fleeing to Manhattan, when her engagement is abruptly broken off. Although somewhat long, Act I sets up the dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship and gives resonance to Act II, which recreates the 1973 filming of the legendary documentary. The audience becomes the camera as we are invited in for a guided tour of the squalid conditions. We are shocked by the women’s outrageous behavior that provides a touching look at their broken dreams and the bond that binds them.
In a smart casting switch Christine Ebersole now plays the 56 year old Little Edie and is absolutely sensational in a performance that feels channeled right from the soul of Edie herself. Mary Louise Wilson is equally brilliant as her elderly mother, Big Edie, and the two women are a match made in heaven. They are compelling, hysterically funny, yet gut wrenchingly sad, capturing the bizarre spirit of this unique relationship.
The music is by Scott Frankel, with lyrics by Michael Korie. In the first act they have created a loving pastiche to 1940’s show tunes by echoing the standard and style of the great American composers. The songs move the story along with clever exposition, but none of the tunes are exactly memorable. The lyrics, however, are cute and winning, especially "Peas in a Pod." The second act songs are edgier and darker, but it is hard to say how good they would be without these fabulous women. Here the outrageous lyrics expose the women’s conflicts and zaniness in oddly moving ways. "Another Winter in a Summer Town" is haunting, and Ms. Ebersole inhabits the song with heart stopping nuances that breathe life into every moment. Allen Moyer’s fashionable set turns into a dilapidated ruin in Act II mirroring the haunting turn of events. The costumes by William Ivey long are perfect.
Bravo to everyone, but Christine Ebersole anchors the evening first as Big Edie, and then as Little Edie. Her breath taking performance, now eligible for the Tony, demonstrates the art of living in the life of the play and may be a once in a lifetime achievement.
Grey Gardens opened on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street on November 2, 2006. For tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit the box office.
As Published in Dan's Papers
…gordin & christiano