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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Walter Kerr, New York

By Gabrielle Mitchell-Marell

  (L. to R.) Mary Louise Wilson and Christine Ebersole

The preferred method to birth a musical these days is to adapt it from popular culture. If these spectacles typically hold the dramatic depth of a children's petting zoo, Grey Gardens is an alligator swamp.

The second half of Doug Wright's book is closely modeled after the 1974 Maysles brothers' documentary of the same name, where Edith Bouvier Beale and her middle-aged daughter, little Edie (first cousin to Jackie Kennedy) allowed cameras into their dilapidated East Hampton mansion, known as Grey Gardens. The documentary is a fascinating and haunting study of a filial folly a deux, and culturally speaking, of a fallen wing of American royalty. But it lacks the dramatic arc or storyline to fuel a show.

Composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael wisely return to the Bouvier Beale's glory days at a formerly grand Grey Gardens, when Edith (Christine Ebersole) ran a private cabaret act out of the living room with the help of her live-in pianist George Gould Strong (Bob Stillman).  Act I is set on the day of little Edie's (Erin Davie) engagement to Joseph Kennedy Jr., and we are treated through Gershwin-style song to the fictionalized events of a life-altering day for these women.  The seeds of the stiflingly intimate and rivalrous mother-daughter relationship, yet to grow into the full dysfunctional symbiosis of the later years, are planted--in episodes illustrating both little Edie's ire and equally ferocious loyalty to her mother. Ebersole is commanding, glamorous and blithely in control of her household and its inhabitants.  As an actress, she also rules over the audience whom she captivates so-- with her substantive, glorious singing voice and majestic presence-- that we wonder how little Edie could prefer the companionship of the chauvinistic Joe Jr. (Matt Cavenaugh).  Erin Davie's melodies measure up, but her Pollyanna looks and manner are too refined to gel with Edie's illustrious moniker: "Body Beautiful Beale." In Edith's version of the story, which ultimately scares off the politically ambitious Joe Jr. from going through with the engagement, her daughter's bathing suit slipped off at a public pool and she reveled in the attention and subsequent dates the incident procured.  

Act II is set thirty-two years later. Little Edie (portrayed, double wow, by Christine Ebersole) is now supremely eccentric and oddly peppy while Edith, (Mary Louise Wilson) is bed-ridden and caustic. Daughter is roughly mother's age back when and a squalid Grey Gardens, inhabited by fifty-two cats and bed bugs, is the setting of little Edie's homegrown cabaret act, which like the mansion is a downgraded version of her mother's.  The viewer is called upon to connect the dots from younger to older Edie, but Davie doesn't reflect the necessary glimmer of mental instability or even wackiness to help a viewer along. The show's two funniest songs take place here. Ebersole's crowd pleasing act opener, "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," where a simple interlude of "da-da-da-dum" is rendered both heartbreaking and hilarious, and Wilson's charmingly peculiar ditty, "Jerry likes my Corn," in which a frail, white haired Edith revels in her boy Friday's enjoyment of her bedside specialty as he kneels and eats. It's the folksy flip side of her long ago worship of Gould's musical genius.

The character portraits and relationship portrayed by Ebersole and Wilson reach a depth usually reserved for dramatic plays, and are thus especially impressive in a laugh-out-loud musical. (The last one to do this on Broadway was Tony Kushner's evanesce


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