Andrea Torrence – St. Louis Theatre Snob, July 14, 2016
In 1975, a documentary by Albert and David Maysles related the story of two cloistered, interdependent, eccentric residents living in a wealthy East Hampton neighborhood. After years of prosperity, the ocean of money slowed to a trickle for Edith “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale (the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), yet they persevered within the walls of a dilapidated, 28-room mansion named Grey Gardens. Though this once glorious, now filth-ridden estate had become overrun with cats, raccoons, fleas (the filmmakers had to wear flea collars), and had practically no running water, Big and Little Edie remained there, in secluded squalor, for over 50 years. The film won acclaim for its “direct cinema” styled rendering of these two fascinating women, and in 2006, this material was adapted into a musical by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics). Max & Louie Productions seems to have gotten all of the right people in all of the right roles to make this St. Louis premiere soar.
After a short prologue, the first act gives us a fictional glimpse into the well-heeled life of the Beales in Grey Gardens’ heyday. It’s 1941 and the Long Island manor is buzzing with activity, getting ready for an extravagant celebration of the engagement of Little Edie (Madeline Purches) to Joseph Kennedy Jr. (Will Bonfiglio), and Big Edie (Debby Lennon) is heading the preparations — ordering the set-up of chafing dishes, the chilling of vichyssoise and the preening of privets. It soon becomes clear that Lennon and Purches couldn’t have been better cast. This potent duo have impressive vocal chops, and depict all of the tricky intricacies of their relationship and mannerisms early on that carry over to the second act credibly and beautifully — Lennon’s transformation is amazing, and Purches gives you just a hint of instability under her poised exterior.
Terry Meddows is also on hand as George Gould Strong, Big Edie’s kept, gay piano accompanist, who plays referee between the women when Little Edie begs her mom to hew down the number of songs she plans to sing at the gathering, feeding her hunger for the limelight and long-held aspirations of a career in show business. Tom Murray is strong as Big Edie’s imperious father, “Major” Bouvier, and Bonfiglio does some great work as the cautious but enthusiastic groom-to-be. Omega Jones is solid as the starched butler, Brooks Sr., and there are delightful appearances from Carter Eiseman and Phoebe Desilets as the young pair, Lee Bouvier and Jacqueline Bouvier, respectively, interrupting the preparations by begging their aunt Edith to entertain them with a song. A fateful telegram upends the festivities, and that sets up the second act.
Speaking of the second act, there’s a neat trick here — Little Edie is now played by Lennon — the first act’s Big Edie, and Big Edie is portrayed by an unyielding Donna Weinsting. Now thirty-two years later, the second act closely mirrors the documentary. Big Edie is now practically bed-ridden, but Weinsting plays her with that same feisty core, now weighed down by the frailties that come with age, while Lennon portrays Little Edie with her eccentricities now full-blown. Despite their poverty, the unabashed quirkiness and poignantly forlorn world of the Beales begs you to laugh with them, as opposed to at them.
Omega Jones who plays the butler in the first act carries over nicely as the easier-going groundskeeper, Brooks Jr. in the second. Bonfiglio also makes a skillful transition from Joe Kennedy Jr. to the Beale’s good-natured layabout handyman, Jerry. Jennifer JC Krajicek’s costumes are spot on, as is Dunsi Dai’s scenic design and Michael Sullivan’s lights. Dialect coach Ariel Saul keeps everyone in that distinct Northeastern tone, and the orchestra, under the direction of Neal Richardson, sounds bigger than it is. Director Annamaria Pileggi does an outstanding job, extending those silent beats to get the most out of the mounting tensions that hint at the moments to come, along with memorable performances from her talented cast. The numbers “The Five-Fifteen,” “Peas in a Pod,” “Will You?,” “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” and a haunting “Another Winter in a Summer Town” are standouts.
Having fallen in love with the documentary years ago, I think it’s safe to suggest that your enjoyment of the show will be enhanced by having a familiarity with the original film. So, you know, click here for that. Get tickets, and go see it now. As Little Edie would say, it’s absolutely terrific, honestly.