Chris Gibson – BroadwayWorld.com, July 15, 2016
If you’ve seen the Maysles brother’s documentaries GREY GARDENS and THE BEALES OF GREY GARDENS (which are actually collaborative efforts between David & Albert Maysles,Ellen Hovde, Muffie Mayer & Susan Froemke) then you have to see Max and Louie Productions’ brilliant staging of the musical based upon these larger than life figures. If you haven’t see either, then you desperately need to. Seriously, they’re on HULU, watch them! Eavesdropping on Edith Bouvier Beale (big Edie) and Edie Beale (little Edie) in these films is an immersive experience, filled with snippets of songs, stories of missed opportunities and lost loves, a dilapidated estate, lot of cats, and more than one raccoon. Their love for one another is, somehow, crystalline clear, but lying beneath layers of scars that a life unfulfilled can produce. The musical tells it all, with a one act flashback to 1941 that fills in the blanks (book by Doug Wright) that led years later to their seclusion in squalor. This is masterfully achieved by the combined efforts of an exceptional cast and expert direction. I’ll say it more than you once; you must see GREY GARDENS.
After a brief prologue set in 1973, we’re thrust back in time to 1941, at a time when young Edie is about to become engaged to Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr., which would propel her into the world of Washington politics, which is actually not the place for someone pining for Hollywood or Broadway. Her mother, Edith, imposes herself and her own performing aspirations into her daughter’s celebration, much to her chagrin. But, it’s Edith’s husband’s telegram detailing his plans to divorce Edith and re-marry in Mexico that spins events out of control. This following Edith relating the story of how her daughter became known as the “body beautiful Beale” to Joseph, The ensuing actions that follow reveal how a sudden aversion to the possibility of scandals and eccentricities destroys the promise of escape and a new beginning, when politics are involved. Then we’re in 1973, and witness to a perfect recreation of many of the moments contained in the documentary, but made even more poignant by Scott Frankel‘s music and Michael Korie‘s lyrics. This is pure genius.
Debby Lennon is a sensation of Edith in 1941 and Edie in 1973. It’s a performance that is transcendent. She captures both distinct characters’ essence perfectly. Plus, Lennon is well known for her exceptional singing, and this score is simply tailor made for her expansive range. It’s a bravura exhibition of true talent. Madeline Purches is also incredible as the young Edie in 1941, desperately trying to make her own way, while living in the overbearing shadow of her beloved, if misguided, mother. Purches displays a superb vocal range of her own, and gets several opportunities to shine brightly. Donna Weinsting plays Edith in 1973, and gives us a portrayal that lovingly sketches a portrait of an elderly woman, sometimes cantankerous in nature, but seemingly at peace with her lot in life, even while living under the layers of filth and disrepair that surround her. Those relationships are at the heart of this story, and it’s the bond between mother and daughter that will linger in your memory.
The supporting cast is wonderful as well: with Terry Meddows doing marvelous work as Edith’s friend and accompanist, George Gould Strong; Will Bonifiglio pulling double duty as Joseph Kennedy, Jr and Jerry, a young man who’s befriended by the elder Edith; Tom Murray as Edith’s father, J.V. “Major” Bouvier and Norman Vincent Peale; Omega Jones as Brooks Sr. and Jr.; Phoebe Desilets as the young Jacqueline Bouvier; and Carter Eiseman as Lee Bouvier. They all provide excellent vocalizations and characterizations throughout.
Director Annamaria Pileggi pulls all the elements together in such a way that we’re completely enthralled and mesmerized by every moment that occurs. It’s all just amazingly conceived and executed. Musical director Neal Richardson (piano) gives us an adoringly evocative score (along with Kyle Twomey (violin) and Ethan Edwards (cello), and Robin Berger handles the choreograph equally well. Every single technical aspect is perfect too, with Jennifer JC Krajicek expertly crafting the costumes that literally define these people. Her work for Edie alone is beyond words. Michael Sullivan contributes an excellent lighting scheme, and Casey Hunter contributes to the overall mood as well with his sound design. Dunsi Dai’s scenic design is a character in the play all by itself, undergoing a spectacular change (that’s worth staying for during intermission) that’s so well thought out. Claudia Horn’s props are spot on, right down to Edie’s magnifying glass and astrology book.
You must give yourself the pleasure of seeing Max & Louie Productions’ GREY GARDENS at the Wool Theater in the Jewish Community Center through July 30, 2016. You will not be disappointed, and you will be moved considerably.