Sunday, February 25, 2007

Grey Gardens (The SOB Review)

Grey Gardens (The SOB Review) - Walter Kerr Theatre, New York, NY

**** (out of ****)

Grey Gardens can hardly be called a “feel good” show. So why did I find myself feeling better than "good" after (finally) taking in a performance of this sublime show?

Two words: Christine Ebersole.

The incredibly talented Ebersole has proven she's at the height of her career. Her virtuoso performance in Grey Gardens is one that I'll never forget.

Mind you, I’m not one to voluntarily stand up and cheer reflexively. Personally, I find that the standing O is grossly overused and should be strictly reserved for only the best of the best. Not only did I leap to my feet upon Ebersole’s curtain call, but I found the extremely rare “bravo” freely coming from my heart and passing through my lips.

In Grey Gardens, Ebersole more than masterfully channels both Edith and Little Edie Bouvier Beales of the funny-if-it-weren’t-so-tragic seventies documentary of the same name. She luminously inhabits mother Edith in act one and then incredibly suspends any disbelief that you are watching anyone but the real Little Edie in the second act. Right before your eyes, a radiant and breathtaking Ebersole becomes Little Edie.

It probably goes without saying, but to really appreciate the production’s excellence, as well as to be truly informed about the real-life train wreck, you must see the documentary.

The film, of course, documents the depths of eccentric squalor and neglect to which Edith and her daughter Little Edie -- relatives of the former First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis -- succumbed. And they did so in the rarefied Hamptons, no less.

Thanks to a potent mix of intriguing fact and supposition by Doug Wright, the musical telling of their story provides plausible answers to the question of how the once mighty could have fallen so far.

In the first act, Wright’s book transports us back to pre-World War II 1941. Little Edie (a pitch perfect Erin Davie) is practically engaged to Joseph Kennedy (a winning Matt Cavenaugh as the scion seemingly destined for the White House before dying a war hero). However, her flirtatious mother Edith (Ebersole) -- a frustrated, would-be singer forced by her recalcitrant, cheating husband to give up her dream -- schemes as saboteur. Whether it’s a selfish fear of being alone or an innate jealousy of her own daughter, Edith single-handedly destroys Little Edie’s last best hope at marrying well.

For her part, Little Edie always harbors an ill-fated hope to someday escape Grey Gardens, yet the second act underscores the taut grasp of her mother. Now bedridden in 1973, the aging Edith (Mary Louise Wilson) remains in an irrational tussle of envy with Little Edie. Yet in these twilight years, they ridiculously vie for the attentions of the young handyman Jerry (Cavenaugh), one of the few remaining people still invited into their once glorious home.

What makes this theatre of the absurd so intoxicating is not just the flawless execution of replicating key passages of the original film, but also the way Little Edie is continually haunted by the specter of the life she could have had. While the second act begins as a downright silly caricature of the mother and daughter straight from the documentary, it transforms into a modern, poignant tragedy, where pathetic dismissal gives way to empathy. Credit Michael Greif's brilliant direction, Wilson’s powerful Edith and Ebersole’s heartwrenching Little Edie.

While I have absolutely no doubt that Ebersole and Wilson will be justly rewarded with Tony nominations -- and let’s be clear here…the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical will go to Ebersole -- the entire cast of Grey Gardens is as solid as can be. Truly exceptional among them are John McMartin in wonderful dual roles as both Major Bouvier and Norman Vincent Peale, Bob Stillman as Goold -- the keyboard tinkling, booze-drinking hanger-on of Edith’s, and the terrific
Kelsey Fowler and Sarah Hyland, who portrayed Lee Radziwill and Jackie O, respectively, as children.

Allen Moyer’s stunning and transformational set design not only luxuriates in the Grey Gardens estate’s previous glory, but mixed with Wendall K. Harrington's stunning projection design in act two, he succeeds in evoking its future filthy disrepair. Similarly, William Ivey Long’s costume design expertly mines the evolution of the real Little Edie’s confounding fashion sense.

Finally, as if that weren’t enough, there’s the alternately gorgeous and disturbing score by Michael Korie and Scott Frankel that crescendos in each act with courageous show-stopping numbers sung with surprising lucidity -- if only for the moment -- by Ebersole’s Edith and Little Edie. In the end, it’s a triumph of the first order.

So do yourself a favor. Go rent the DVD of the original cult documentary (if you're still unfamiliar with the story of the Beales) and then make tracks to the Walter Kerr Theatre to take in this highly unconventional, but completely satisfying musical. You'll thank me!

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for ticket information.
Related Stories:
Grey Gardens Proves Fertile For Most Critics (November 3, 2006)
Time To Meet The Reaper: Grey Gardens Opens On Broadway (November 2, 2006)
Mary Poppins, Grey Gardens Tops Among SOB Readers (October 27, 2006)
Survey Says.... (October 23, 2006)
Which Broadway Musical Will Depart Next? (August 21, 2006)
Grey Gardens Moving to Broadway, Lest There Was Any Doubt (May 15, 2006)

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At 27 February, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Steve. Glad you liked GG. That means we can remain friends. ;-) BTW, I feel the same way about the standing O. Grossly overused. It takes a lot to get me on my feet. Fortunately, the sublime Ms. Ebesole fit the bill. --CC

At 28 February, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Chris, I'm always happy when we agree on a great show! And I think we agree much more than we disagree, but even then, I always respect your erudite point of view.

At 01 March, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, Steve, since I recently saw the Grey Gardens documentary, I have some questions about how it's been turned into a musical.

My initial reaction when I saw the documentary was, these women have emotional problems, they have problems coping with everyday life, and I felt the filmmakers exploited them a bit. You're exactly right when you call it funny if it weren't so tragic!

I listened to the commentary track on the DVD, and the producer and director were defensive about this issue. They said that Big and Little Edie were nonconformists, their lives were examples of how opportunities for women were constricted, and if they were British we'd be calling them eccentric and their behavior would be considered charming.

Then I saw Christine Ebersole on The View, and one of the hosts brought up the same question, wasn't there something emotionally wrong with these women? Christine Ebersole said the same thing as the producer and director, that they were artistic types, nonconformists, etc.

Frankly, I thought this line of thinking was delusional. I mean, leaving food out for the raccoons in your attic is not normal behavior. Won't somebody admit that the emperor has no clothes?

Then, two things changed my mind. On the DVD, there's an audio interview with Little Edie that was recorded a few years after the documentary came out. She talked about how much she and her mother liked their portrayal. And she actually sounded more lucid than she did in the film.

After that, I found some video clips of Christine Ebersole performing songs from the show. Steve, you're right, she's great. She really does become Little Edie. I'd love to see her in this show and the "irrational tussle of envy" between the two women. Nice phrase!

And you know what, if Little Edie were alive, I thnk she'd be incredibly flattered and thrilled with Christine Ebersole's performance. I mean, who wouldn't want to see their life portrayed by someone so beautiful and talented!

But I do have two questions for you. I know that while the second act sticks pretty close to the documentary, the first act is wholly invented. What do you think about the way the musical mixes fact and fiction? If you hadn't seen the documentary, would you have known that the first act is fantasy and the second act is reality? Does it matter?

Also, does the show romanticizes the women or does it present them in all of their squalor and difficulty in coping with life? Was the way you felt about them at the end of the show different than the way you felt about them at the end of the documentary?

At 01 March, 2007, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Esther, First, let me be clear that I came away from the musical version of Grey Gardens viewing the mother and daughter much more sympathetically than I did with the documentary. Instead of romanticizing the squalor, it does the opposite. I actually felt empathy in a way that I never could with the film. That was the triumph of the stage version - you walked away really feeling something for these two ladies.

But it's also the reason why I find it important to rent the DVD first. You need to see the real McCoy in order to inform yourself of what you're about to see on the stage.

At 26 July, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, now I've finally seen Grey Gardens!

I agree with alot of what you said. The entire cast is terrific, from John McMartin to the two little girls who portrayed Jackie and Lee. It's been a couple days now, and I can still picture each of them and their performance so clearly in my mind.

Having seen the documentary, Christine Ebersole absolutely channels Little Edie and Mary Louise Wilson does the same for Big Edie. You are right - Ebersole becomes Little Edie in the second act. It's astonishing. And she creates a memorable Edith in the first act, really out of whole cloth, with no documentary to guide her.

And the costumes and set design amplify the stark contrast between the women's circumstances in the two acts. It's not just that the splendor of the house in the Hamptons turns to squalor. As Little Edie, Erin Davie's clothes in Act I are classic and stunning. When you contrast it with the more, uh, unconventional wardrobe that Little Edie adopts in Act II, it's a pretty pointed example of how her life has evolved. It's almost like you can tell by her clothes that she's lost some of her grip on reality. Either that, or her clothes have become the only way she can act out her desire for an existence independent of her mother.

But I found the transition between the first and second acts a little bit jarring. It was hard for me to believe that Davie and Ebersole were playing the same person. They just didn't seem very similar, they didn't sound similar.

Also, if Little Edie really had been unceremoniously dumped by Joe Kennedy Jr., it seems unlikely that her young cousin Jacqueline Bouvier, who witnessed the whole thing, would have wanted anything to do with the Kennedy family after that!

And I know this is nitpicking, but in Act II, after Jerry, "the Marble Faun," warns Edith that she should wash her bedsheets because he'd seen insects in them, he lies down on the other bed. Ewwww!!!!

I couldn't get away from the fact that I'd seen the documentary, seen these women in all their squalor and, perhaps, mental illness. If the real Big and Little Edies seemed like caricatures in the documentary, on stage Ebersole really infuses them with a deep sense of humanity. I definitely gained a better understanding of why their lives may have turned out the way they did. Like you said, I felt less repulsion, more empathy.

And I really believe that if Little Edie were with us today, she'd be flattered and thrilled.

At 21 May, 2008, Blogger Dale said...

I had a slightly different take on the show as you can read here but still rated it seven racoons in the attic! :-)

My friends (and youse guys) disagreed a bit with me I think on the overall production but I'd see it again in a heartbeat.


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