Monday, March 02, 2009

Grey Gardens

Quirky ‘GREY GARDENS’ makes for interesting viewing at Beck

Don’t go to ‘GREY GARDENS’ at Beck Center thinking that you are going to see a traditional musical. The script, the music and the concept are anything but usual. There is a lot of Sondheim in the Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, Michael Korie musical. This is not music you’ll go out of the show whistling. There is not a “break into dance” production number in this show. The off-the-cuff story and complex compositions will envelope some and put off others.

‘GREY GARDENS’ centers on the eccentric aunt (Edith Bouvier Beale) and cousin (“Little” Edie Beale) of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. It explores the plight of these women, two of the brightest names in the pre-Camelot social register, who transition into East Hampton notorious recluses.

The first act of the musical, which is based on the 1975 documentary of the same title, is set in 1941 when the estate was in its prime and the likes of Joe Kennedy, Jr., the older brother of JFK, was a suitor for the hand of “Little” Edie Beale. The second act, set in 1973 displays the residence reduced to squalor and the participants hopelessly delusional.

These are two dysfunctional women who are bound to each other by need and misguided values. They can’t be in a healthy relationship with each other, but they can’t live without each other.

The original off-Broadway production opened to mixed reviews. Revisions were made and the show opened on Broadway on November 2, 2006 and ran 307 performances after receiving enthusiastic press. It won three Tony Awards. A 2007 documentary, ‘GREY GARDENS: FROM EAST HAMPTON TO BROADWAY,’ has developed a cult following, as has the show.

The Beck production, under the adept direction of Victoria Bussert, is audience involving. She is blessed with an excellent cast and a fine technical staff.

The staging takes a little getting used to. In the first act, “Little” Edie is 24 and Edie is 47; in the second act “Little Edie” is 56 and Edie is 79. The same actress who plays Edie in the first act, plays “Little Edie” in the second act. As soon as that imagery gets clear, the story and intrigue takes over.

Maryann Nagel, as has come to be expected of this fine actress, is compelling in both her roles. Her final scene, in which she seemingly is going to break the unhealthy bond and flee Grey Gardens, is emotionally wrenching. She textures both roles with the right amount of personality and her alteration of accents is remarkable.

Lenne Snively, as the self-imposed bed-bound Edith, is so excellent, that she almost compels someone in the audience to come and drag her out of bed and make her face reality.

Jillian Kates Bumpas, as “Little Edie” in Act I, is quite good, but sometime appears to be staying on the surface, rather than digging beneath the surface of the character. She has a nice singing voice

Patrick Janson developed well the role of George Strong, the put-upon homosexual liaison of Edith. His singing, and piano and saxophone playing were excellent.

Kennedy family look-alike Jonathan Walker White, whose accent was inconsistent, was overly stiff as Joseph Kennedy, Jr., but was fine as Jerry, a young vagrant who hung around Grey Gardens in the lean times.

Annie Kostel, who portrayed a young Jacqueline Bouvier, looks very much like Jackie O as a tween. Both she and Natalie Welch (Lee Bouvier) maintained their characters throughout.

George Roth was properly angry and frustrated as “Major” Bouvier.

Russ Borski’s set and costume designs were excellent and Jodie Ricci’s musical direction was on lyrically target. Unfortunately, at times the music got so loud that it drowned out the singers. In this show, where the lyrics are not familiar and are absolutely integral to understanding the characters and the story line, this was a major distraction. The minimal amount of dancing was well choreographed by Martin Céspedes.

Side note: During an after-production discussion lead by Maryann Nagle, an inquiry by a group of my students who attended the Sunday matinee production, centered on how truthful the narrative was. Nagel indicated that according to the research she and the director did, though the story line is compressed, the events were accurate.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘GRAY GARDENS,’ both because it has a glimmer of the Jackie O mystique, and the interesting nature of the story, makes for a fine evening of theatre. The Beck production is further enhanced by the focused directing and fine performances.