Max and Louie Productions Brings a Musical Version of the Cult Classic “Grey Gardens” to the St. Louis Stage
Mallory Nezam – St Louis Magazine, July 5, 2016
In the opulent, manicured world of East Hampton, there lived a peculiar mother and daughter pair. And the infamous Albert and David Maysles documented the lives of these once-obscure relatives of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis—“Big Edie” Beale, (mother) and “Little Edie” Beale (daughter)—in a completely raw way in their iconic 1975 documentary film, Grey Gardens. In the style of direct cinema, the filmmakers turned the camera on, and let the Beales’ life play out. And play it did. America was let into the mother and daughter’s complex world of isolation, cats, and wealth, the mansion’s squalid interior as serpentine as their love for one another.
Cut to 2006 when Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie take on the colossal task of interpreting this cult classic as a musical. This would be the first Broadway musical ever based on a documentary. The two-act production depicts the Beales’ aristocratic life in 1941, as well as its tragic atrophy in 1973. Cut to July 2016, when the musical will make its St. Louis premiere at The Wool Studio Theater at The St. Louis Jewish Community Center, with Director Annamaria Pileggi tasked with bringing to life this dynamic tale for local audiences.
As the relationship between the two lead women is the draw of the play, Pileggi and her team went through three rounds of auditions to select a cast that would do the Beales justice. (Pileggi says the actors really have to deliver a tour de force in order to capture the dynamism of the mother-and-daughter interdependency captured in the Maylses’ film.) Donna Weinsting plays Big Edith; Madeline Purches is Little Edie in Act One, and Debby Lennon is Little Edie in Act Two. Around these ladies is a constellation of talent in the small company of nine actors that play out life in the mansion.
What originally drew Pileggi to the story she says, is “the relationship between mother and daughter. It wasn’t necessarily a happy relationship, but it was enduring. There is something hopeful about that. Throughout all the dysfunction, illness, trials and tribulation, these women were able to endure in their love of one another.”
To balance the reality of story with her own creative license and create two alternate realities between the Act One and Two, Pileggi worked carefully with a talented team of designers, including JC Krajicek, who created the costumes. Unlike the film, the musical must imagine the Beales’ glamorous lives during the 1940s. Krajicek did exhaustive research to create a sense of prestige and wealth in Act One. The team tries to remain true to documented depiction of the family in Act Two, playing with their own interpretations of the family’s identity.
The dissonance between the two acts is also fleshed out musically with the expertise of Musical Director Neal Richardson. Pileggi describes Act One as bright and the second act as dark, moody and Sondheim-esque. “It is almost like two different plays,” she says. “It’s amazing what changed in 30 years.”
Grey Gardens is not necessarily a St. Louis-centric story, but St. Louis audiences will respond to the humanity of this story, Pileggi believes. The musical is not just a story, but a journey through time and the evolution of a relationship that the audience goes on with the actors. Pileggi also notes that with such a rich history of high society and culture, the musical will spark nostalgia for older times.
Those who have been in the theater world know about the magical thing that happens when a show is really working: It not only spills over the lines of the stage and sinks its teeth into the audience, but into the very makers of the work themselves. If Grey Gardens is ultimately about relationships, it is made clear by the way Pileggi talks about her team. “The amount of hard work, generosity of spirit, collaborative will, and courage these people have shown has blown me away,” she explains. “That produces good art. I hope people can feel this on the stage—that it comes out in the work. And if you can walk away from a show with that, that’s everything.”
Grey Gardens: The Musical opens July 8 and runs through July 30 at The Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex, #2 Millstone Campus. Tickets are $45 general admission, $35 seniors and students. For more information, visit maxandlouie.com.