Steve Allen – Stage Door St. Louis, July 13, 2016
Reviewing a production is, of course, a personal viewpoint and every one of the several critics we have in our town will vary in their opinions. But with “Grey Gardens,” the current musical from Max & Louie Productions, I think we’ll join forces in our praise for just about every aspect from casting and direction down through the technical creators. If it isn’t flawless, it comes pretty darn close.
With a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, “Grey Gardens” tells the real life story of the relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy and their prominence in social circles in the 40’s to their bizarre decline and definite anti-social behavior in the 70’s. Still living in their magnificent mansion in East Hampton where we first see them preparing for a promised engagement of Little Edie Beale to Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. in 1941, we see a broken down mother and daughter in the same, deteriorated mansion swarming with cats and a life of accumulated trash in 1973.
This show offers a break out performance for Debby Lennon in the dual roles of Edith Bouvier Beale (in the 1941 segment) and her daughter, Little Edie Beale in Act II which takes place in 1973. A singer and performer for many years in St. Louis and elsewhere, Debby Lennon blows the roof off the Wool Center at the home of New Jewish Theatre with a tour de force unlike anything we’ve seen in some time. Her “big” Edie is brash and overpowering with a gusto and ego that can’t be held back. Culminating in a show stopping finale to Act I with the ballad, “Will You?,” it is a no-holds barred performance. In Act II, playing “little” Edie, her demeanor is much the same with delusional touches that solidify her mastery of the character and the entire show ending with the heart-wrenching duet with Donna Weinsting (now playing the older Edie), “Another Winter In A Summer Town.”
Donna Weinsting brings a clever madness to the aged Edith that hovers between semi-coherence and outright insanity. In an odd, controlled way, she portrays this decline into despair and delusion with a sense of dignity. Tom Murray is a boisterous, frustrated J.V. “Major” Bouvier in Act I. His dissatisfaction with Edith is apparent but he is gentle and witty with the youngsters (great performances from Phoebe Desilets as young Jackie Bouvier and Carter Eiseman as Lee- the future Lee Radziwell)- especially in the clever musical number, “Marry Well.” In the second act, Mr. Murray does a splendid turn as Norman Vincent Peale in one of Big Edie’s many fantasies.
Another great turn by Terry Meddows as the gay, raconteur friend of Edith as her accompanist and “hanger-on,” offering encouragement in her musical career. Madeline Purches absolutely stuns as little Edie during the 1941 sequence- displaying a beautiful singing voice and great acting chops as she manages to destroy her future by alienating the young Kennedy and driving him away from what he can see is sheer madness. As Joseph Kennedy, Will Bonfiglio turns in another great performance (so good in the recent “Old Wicked Songs” at NJT in the same space)- even locking down the famous Kennedy accent. In the second act, he becomes the only friend and odd “gentleman caller” of big Edie. Is he taking advantage of her? Most likely, but he also offers her much needed companionship. Omega Jones rounds out the cast as the long-suffering butler to the Beale/Bouvier clan and is still loyal to the two ladies as we see in his passionate performance in Act Two.
Nothing works without the inspired direction of Annamaria Pileggi. Her insight and deeply involved compassion for this story and characters is felt from the very beginning and continues through the heartbreak of the second act. Along with the witty and almost retro choreography of Robin Berger, it makes for a totally satisfying look at this bizarre story. Jennifer JC Krajicek’s costumes are spot on including the beautifully rendered blousy trousers of Terry Meddow’s character- very Cole Porter-ish. Michael Sullivan’s lights are sheer perfection.
Dunsi Dai has created two different worlds- both in magnificent fashion as set designer. From the opulence of the First Act to the decadence of the second, it’s a feat that is as powerful as it is persuasive. Along with the Claudia Horn prop design, this production transports you to two very different but equally effective worlds. The musical direction of Neal Richardson also blends into this production with ease. This is a captivating score and the use of piano, cello and violin is an excellent choice. At times you’d swear there was a full orchestra backing up the actors and at other times the subtlety of the music is astounding.
Enough cannot be said for this Max & Louie production of “Grey Gardens.” Every piece of the puzzle fits together splendidly to bring laughs and tears to an eager audience. Do not miss the chance to see this exquisite presentation that you will never forget. It plays through July 30th.