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In the early 1970s, when health inspectors showed up on the doorstep of a spacious but decrepit shoreline estate in tony East Hampton, Long Island, they might have known the owner was Edith Bouvier Beale, aunt of former first lady Jackie Kennedy. But they could not have known their visit would inspire a documentary, Grey Gardens, by Albert and David Maysles, and a well-regarded Broadway musical that garnered 10 Tony nominations in 2007, including wins for Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson. (It also spawned an Emmy-winning 2009 HBO movie with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.)
Last summer, as audiences in Sag Harbor, only a few miles from the estate, watched the first performances of this captivating new revival starring Betty Buckley and Rachel York, some must have been old enough to remember the real-life Big Edith and Little Edie, high society outcasts, vagrants in Valhalla. The production now comes to Los Angeles, running through Aug. 14 at the Ahmanson Theatre.
The Maysles film has become a cult classic and director Michael Wilson was wise to incorporate it here, projecting early scenes of when the story first made headlines over Jeff Cowie’s fragmented proscenium of faded shingles. In the opening moments, a camera crew picks up Big Edith (Buckley) idly reminiscing to an old tune, “The Girl Who Has Everything,” a paean to privilege and beauty. She could be singing about her younger self, but as the action flashes back to 1941 and expands to include the ensemble, she might also be singing of her daughter Little Edie (Sarah Hunt), a day away from her nuptials with Joe Kennedy Jr. (Josh Young).
The estate has traded its mid-’70s condition of decay for its former grandeur. And Big Edith has been transformed into Rachel York, the elegant lady of the house who seems less concerned with the coming ceremony than she is with her program for the night, a whopping nine songs with which she intends to serenade the party. But Edie, who has seen her mother’s warbling clear a room before, is determined to spare her wedding guests.
Accompanying her mother is live-in pianist George Gould Strong (Bryan Batt), a besotted hanger-on always ready with not-so-funny one-liners and a steady stream of encouragement for the lady who writes the checks. There’s lots of exposition and songs like “The Five-Fifteen,” an ensemble piece to juice things along, and “Goin‘ Places,” in which Edie and Joe take a sanguine look at the road yet traveled. The show’s strangest song is “Hominy Grits,” wherein Edith pastiches African-American vernacular with no discernible purpose other than to match an earlier tune listing Asian stereotypes.
As the younger Edie, Hunt is pretty and vivacious with none of the idiosyncrasies intimating her later, fractured self. Her most affecting song, “Daddy’s Girl,” is a desperate plea to convince Kennedy of her fidelity. As moving as it is, the first act belongs to York as Edith, a mother from hell who demands the center spotlight, which is York’s proven natural milieu. Los Angeles audiences will remember her standout performance in 2012’s Anything Goes, as well as shows like City of Angels and Les Miserables.
The first act is engaging only as generic musical theater, as if book writer Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) and director Michael Wilson (The Trip to Bountiful) were anxious to dispense with the preliminaries and get to the more outré second act. While York dominates the first act, she is even more impressive after intermission when she switches from Big Edith to Little Edie, taking over the role from Hunt as the now 56-year-old former debutante, holed up with her mother, played by Buckley.
Gone are the Kennedys, the bright colors, beautiful people and sparkling champagne — replaced now with filth and decay. Bickering and reminiscence are the order of the day, captured by the camera crew, whom Edie embraces as her new best friends. Her first number in act two, “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” is the best of the score by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie. It showcases the character’s charm and eccentricity as she models a bizarre ensemble with stockings over shorts and an apron that doubles as a cape — a middle finger to a “mean nasty Republican town.”
Thoughts like “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Do you know what I mean? It’s awfully difficult,” sound like something Tennessee Williams might have written but are lifted from the documentary.
If York weren’t so dominant in the role, gracefully balancing hilarity with pathos, it would be a pity that Buckley — who earned the moniker “the voice of Broadway” with her Tony-winning portrayal of Grizabella in Cats, and won an Olivier Award in London as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard — doesn’t get more stage time. Her poignant rendition of “Jerry Likes My Corn,” about her friendship with a neighborhood kid (Young, pulling double-duty), serves as a bookend to the first act’s “The Girl Who Has Everything,” where she expressed similar affection for her daughter in happier times.
Audiences often take delight in watching the privileged get their comeuppance, but Grey Gardens is not a portrait of power-wielding egomaniacs getting their just deserts. Being without men in a man’s world, the women it spotlights are powerless, equal victims of chauvinism and self-delusion. Big Edith only wanted her independence, a virtual impossibility for a young woman with nothing more to offer than a vibrant falsetto. And her daughter Edie is someone who, due to poor parenting and a hint of mental illness, found all avenues of escape cut off.
Like most of us one time or another, they are trapped by an uncaring world and by their own shortcomings. The point is brought home in Edie’s heartbreaking lament that ends the show, “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” sung by a woman who will always be on the outside looking in. It’s a condition familiar to anyone who has ever felt defeated and estranged — rich, poor, loved and unloved, and it’s what gives Grey Gardens its enduring emotional resonance.
Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Rachel York, Betty Buckley, Bryan Batt, Josh Young, Peyton Ella, Sarah Hunt, Simon Jones, Katie Silverman, Davon Williams, Olivia Curry, Rogelio Douglas Jr., Steven Good, Melina Kalomas, Michelle London, Rebecca Spencer
Director: Michael Wilson
Book: Doug Wright
Music: Scott Frankel
Lyrics: Michael Korie
Set designer: Jeff Cowie
Costume designer: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Jon Weston
Musical director: Kevin Stites
Choreographer: Hope Clarke
Presented by Center Theatre Group, by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Service
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