Grey Gardens

Website Review

Lynn Venhaus – Belleville News Democrat, July 28, 2016

The magical spark that you hope to experience every time you sit in a dark theater occurs during the impeccable “Grey Gardens.”

Exciting and electric, this extraordinary work is well-cast, with flawless production design — the set, costumes, sound, and lighting.

The extra care is evident. For its St. Louis regional premiere, Max and Louie Productions have nurtured the Tony-winning musical with attention and affection.

Director Annamaria Pileggi’s zeroed in on the details, creating an indelible portrait. All the pieces are in place to lose ourselves in this unbelievable but true story of doyennes in high society — Bouviers, no less — and their fall from grace into squalor.

The first act depicts a glamorous life at a seaside estate called Grey Gardens in East Hampton, Long Island, N.Y. Edith Bouvier Beale is married to an often absent wealthy financier, and is the daughter of bombastic Wall Street stockbroker Major J.V. Bouvier and sister to J.V. “Black Jack” Bouvier III, father of future First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and future princess Lee Radziwill.

She is preparing for the (fictitious) engagement of her beautiful daughter Little Edie to Joseph P. Kennedy. Edith’s close personal friend, pianist George Gould Strong, is always present. A well-known composer, too, he accompanies Edith when she performs for guests.

Ever the drama queen, Edith lives for the spotlight, much to the dismay of her high-spirited daughter, Little Edie, an aspiring actress. The cracks in this life of privilege are slowly revealed. What was supposed to be a joyous occasion turns into a fiasco.

The second act follows the acclaimed 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, which focuses on the dependent relationship of reclusive mother and daughter as they live in deplorable conditions. Their home has been condemned and a scandal has erupted.

The spotlight that the women craved is now showing them at their worst. How could this have happened and how can they live this way?

This surprisingly touching musical, with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, has captivating complexity. Inspiring in its own way, the tale has elements that everyone can identify with — sacrificing for family, clinging to dreams that will never materialize, and wanting to go but knowing you must stay.

The performances are exceptional, and they nail the New England accents so that they are believable and not self-conscious.

Debby Lennon gives a dazzling and dynamic tour de force portrayal of flaky socialite Big Edith in the first act, gliding around in luxury. She immerses herself in second act as a bizarre grown Little Edie, a sad shell of her former self, still dressing flamboyantly, living in the past, and taking care of her “Mother Darling.”

Her final numbers, “Another Winter in a Summer Town” and “The Girl Who Has Everything” (reprise) are poignant and polished while “Will You?” as the first act closer is a heartbreaker.

Donna Weinsting, in her best performance yet, is Big Edith in the second act, now a delusional, decrepit old woman.

In a star-making turn, Madeline Purches is stunning as the vivacious young Little Edie in the first act, with “The Telegram” a standout. Lennon and Purches are charming in “Peas in a Pod”

Will Bonfiglio aptly portrays Joseph P. Kennedy as a world-by-the-tail young turk. He’s full of vim and vigor, carrying himself as a well-bred man of stature. He and Purches shine on a zesty “Goin’ Places,” choreographed by Robin Berger.

Other supporting turns are strong as well — Terry Meddows as the bon vivant Gould, Tom Murray as the domineering dad Major Bouvier and Omega D. Jones as the butler Brooks Sr. and his son in the second act. They also take on incidental roles as an ensemble in musical numbers. Phoebe Desilets and Carter Eiseman are terrific as the young Jackie and Lee Bouvier.

A glimpse into affluence is fascinating, and when there is a documented trainwreck ahead, it’s riveting.

But this production has layers to it, and much depth. It’s very special and this is your last chance to see one of the best shows of the year.