Heads up Angelenos – Broadway has sent some of its finest actors to the Ahmanson stage to shine in Grey Gardens: the musical version of the critically acclaimed documentary of the same name. As neither my trusty friend Elisa Dekay, nor myself had yet seen the documentary, there was no expectation of comparing the musical to the film. We did, however, expect great things from the actors, and in that we were not disappointed.
The startling specter of once wealthy socialite Edith Bouvier Beale, and her daughter, “Little” Edie Beale was exposed in a 1972 New York Magazine article by Gail Sheehy. Readers were riveted by the threat of Suffolk County Health Department officials evicting the recluse ladies and demolishing their formerly grand fourteen-room mansion. Edith’s niece, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis came to their financial aid, adding familial intrigue to the unfolding story.
So profound was their descent into a life of grotesque squalor, trapped in their own lunacy within dilapidated walls and crumbling ceilings, the Library of Congress preserved the 1975 documentary in the United States National Film Registry for its “cultural significance.”
How then, does the musical Grey Gardens fall flat in the telling? The problem lies neither with the actors nor Jeff Cowie’s glorious set design. In a nutshell, Act I is overwritten. It’s just too long. And, Director Michael Wilson seems to have allowed for unnecessary long beats and plodding action. The text itself chafes against what is inherently an interesting story rendering it a little dull. And while it might seem an incongruous thing to say of a musical – there is just too much music; too many songs, and not one that might replay in your head in the car on the way home. Act II is worth the wait, and Act I is saved by the actors who are all terrific singers. Sometimes you get one or the other; it is a treat to get both.
In Act I, Rachel York is altogether herself in the skin of the forty-six year old Edith Bouvier Beale holding court in the splendor of her wealth. Then as the curtain rises on Act II she grabs the stage as fifty-six year old Little Edie living crazy with her mother and does not let go. Heed this word; do not miss this opportunity to catch one of Broadways brightest as she steps from one role to the next without so much as a skip, right before your eyes. Bonus – she sings just as good as she walks. (twitter: @TheRachelYork)
Tony Award winner, Betty Buckley, is among a tight circle of actors who steps from theatre to film to television to concert halls bringing the same reliable depth of artistry to each stage all while understanding the craft of each medium. To the actor, her performance is a master class; to the audience, it is a joy. There is no characterizing poor Edith Bourvier Beale, no leaning into her mental illness. Buckley accepts Edith for whom she is and with that imbues her with humanity and sweetness.
It is quite a trick to be as spot on accurate to a period as is Bryan Batt playing Edith’s companion and accompanist: George Gould Strong. Known to television audiences for his award winning portrayal of Salvatore Romano in Mad Men, Batt brings not only the sensibility of the period to Act I, he carries the heightened style of mannerisms of the time. In fact, all of the actors seem to understand the conventions of the two moments in time: the summer of 1941 and 1973.
Recent Julliard graduate, Sarah Hunt adds this winsome performance as “Little” Edie Beale opposite Rachel York to her growing resume, which seems rightfully on the fast track ahead. Simon Jones deftly jumps between two roles: a properly disgusted father, looking down his nose at the antics of the women of his family, and a funny turn as Norman Vincent Peale. The supporting cast and ensemble are all well voiced and well played.
Don’t miss Grey Gardens playing now through August 14.