Mark Bretz – LadueNews, July 13, 2016
Story: At one time they were the belles of the ball. Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale was born in 1895, the daughter of a well-to-do attorney and his wife who was heir to a wealthy paper manufacturer. She also was the sister of John “Black Jack” Bouvier, who later married and had two daughters, Jacqueline and Lee, the former of whom would become the wife of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, senator from Massachusetts and eventually president of the United States.
Edith’s father favored being referred to as “Major,” in deference to his appointment to the Army’s Judge Advocate Corps in World War I, drilling into his children and grandchildren that “the hallmark of aristocracy is responsibility.”
So, he wasn’t too pleased that Edith fancied herself an actress and singer rather than focusing on her ‘obligations’ as the wife of lawyer/financier Phelan Beale and mother of two sons and a daughter, who also was named Edith. The family moved in 1923 to the so-called “Grey Gardens” mansion in East Hampton, New York, where the children were raised.
Beale and “Big Edie” separated in 1931 and he finally filed for divorce in Mexico in 1946. Big Edie became increasingly eccentric, maintaining that she was a singer of considerable ability. To that end she shared her home with pianist George “Gould” Strong and a handyman who took care of the place.
Daughter “Little Edie,” after a few years in New York City attempting to start her own show business career, returned to Grey Gardens, where she lived in increasing squalor with her mother. Long cut off from inheritances, they sold off antiques and family treasures to purchase the necessities, living in filth amidst dozens of cats, raccoons and an infestation of fleas.
Eventually, Big Edie’s niece Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her husband Aristotle Onassis paid $32,000 to have the house brought up to code after it was condemned by the Suffolk County Board of Health. Big Edie and Little Edie kept living at Grey Gardens, which continued to deteriorate after Big Edie died in 1977 until Little Edie finally sold it to Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and his wife, Sally Quinn, in 1979.
Highlights: Max & Louie Productions has dotted all the ‘i’s and crossed all the ‘t’s with its superbly crafted and constantly engaging St. Louis premiere of Grey Gardens — The Musical. Spellbinding in its execution, Grey Gardens is a fascinating look at two well-bred, upper-class women whose mental illness cut them off from society even as it made their own relationship a bizarre expression of mutual love.
Other Info: Grey Gardens won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2007, the first musical to be based on a documentary. In 1975, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles made a cinema verite movie about the lives of two reclusive, formerly wealthy women living in a 28-room mansion called Grey Gardens in the ritzy area of East Hampton outside New York City.
The film was adapted into a musical by writer Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, which debuted Off-Broadway in 2006 and then transferred to Broadway later that year, closing in July 2007.
While it’s termed a musical, Grey Gardens feels more like a play with music. Perhaps that’s because the story is so riveting and perversely fascinating that it overwhelms the musical interludes. That’s not to say that the music isn’t very good; quite the contrary, Frankel’s deceptively simple melodies are maximized with Korie’s descriptive lyrics.
Director Annamaria Pileggi and her accomplished cast make this production a nuanced, transfixing presentation which she accurately terms a “spectacle” and “the domestic equivalent of a car wreck” in her program notes. It’s considerably more than that, too, given the remarkable performance of Debby Lennon and the magnificent work of her colleagues.
Lennon excels in two roles. In the first act, after a prologue set in 1973, Lennon portrays “Big Edie” in her heyday in 1941 at age 47. With the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, Lennon’s Big Edie runs roughshod over the engagement party planned for Little Edie to Joseph Kennedy Jr. (a fictional event in this fact-based drama). Lennon is superb showing the bravado of Big Edie wilting in the face of her father’s bullying ways and her errant husband’s heartless absence for his daughter’s big day.
In the second act, set again in 1973, Lennon portrays Little Edie at age 56, sporting scarves to disguise her loss of hair and pounds removed from her “Body Beautiful” days in her 20s. It’s gut-wrenching to watch her Little Edie perform her new ‘routine’ for the delivery boy who is the Beales’ only contact with the outside world save their caretaker Brooks Jr.
Donna Weinsting is tremendous in the role of Big Edie. She disguises her own fine singing voice with Big Edie’s screeching, cacophonous New York timbre that is far removed from the smooth soprano in songs she recorded in bygone days which she still plays on her record player.
Pileggi extracts optimal efforts from Lennon and Weinsting in the bickering battles in which the two Edies engage on a regular basis, before they resolve their differences to face another day in their private asylum.
Tom Murray wonderfully depicts the blustery cruelty of Major Bouvier and Terry Meddows is splendid as the devil-may-care Strong, whose sexual preference is a point of disgust to the Major but a man who provides solace for Big Edie.
Will Bonfiglio makes for a sharply dressed, slick-talking Joe Kennedy Jr. (with a nod to dialect coach Ariel Saul for his New England nasal tones), whose attraction to Little Edie takes an abrupt turn after a telling conversation with Big Edie prior to the engagement party. He also is amusing in Act II as the teenage delivery boy who is the Beales’ fragile link to the outside.
Omega Jones does quite well as the Beales’ loyal servants, Brooks Sr. in 1941 and Brooks Jr. in 1973, and there’s fine work as well by Phoebe Desilets and Carter Eiseman as the youthful Jackie and Lee Bouvier, respectively.
As Little Edie in the first act, Madeline Purches delivers a powerful, affecting performance of a headstrong young woman who nonetheless can’t escape the powerful grasp of her destructive mother. Her confrontations with Lennon as the Beale women fight to protect each other’s turf make for sad, poignant drama.
All of this plays out on a spectacular set designed by Dunsi Dai that transforms Grey Gardens from the elegance of Act I to its squalid, horrific appearance 30 years later in Act II. Michael Sullivan’s lighting accentuates both the best and the worst of the home and Claudia Horn’s props add savvy touches in both acts.
Casey Hunter provides the effective sound design, Emma Bruntrager adds hair and wig design and Jennifer JC Krajicek is responsible for the array of costumes that range from the swank elegance in Act I to deplorably shabby in the second.
Frankel’s smooth score is played superbly by musical director Neal Richardson at the piano along with violinist Kyle Twomey and cellist Ethan Edwards. Robin Berger’s choreography pleasingly illustrates numbers such as Joe and Little Edie’s easy-going number, Goin’ Places, as well as Little Edie’s awkward bit in Act II, The Revolutionary Costume for Today, and others.
Grey Gardens succeeds in telling the true story of the alarming decline of two mentally ill residents of American royalty, while also respectfully depicting the mutually desperate love of two souls lost in the indifferent cruelty of life.
Musical: Grey Gardens – The Musical
Group: Max & Louie Productions
Venue: Wool Studio Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Drive
Dates: July 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 27, 28, 29, 30
Tickets: $35-$45; contact 1-800-838-3006 or maxandlouie.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.