Grey Gardens the musical (book by Dough Wright, lyrics by Michael Korie, music by Scott Frankel) is a faithful adaptation of the 1970’s cult classic documentary of the same name directed by Albert and David Maysles, and it is both more intelligible and goes down much easier than its odd but strangely fascinating source material – in other words, this is a show that’s bound to please confirmed fans of the original film and general audiences alike. The story centers on the lives of Edith Bouvier Beale (Jennifer Strand, Nicky McDonnell) and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (Nicky McDonnell, Kate Collins Brown), who go by the nicknames “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” respectively, and they live together in a large splendid house in East Hampton on Long Island that seems destined, and is destined, to fall into a decay of neglect that in surreal gothic fashion mirrors the lives and characters of its eccentric inhabitants.
Director Christopher Dykton and the actors and designers of the Little Theatre of Alexandria have wrought a fine portrait of mother and daughter that is as intriguing as it is brutal.
The musical opens with a prologue in the present day (1973) and a musical number, “The Girl Who Has Everything,” which amateur singer and aspiring opera diva Big Edie had recorded way back in 1945. At 78, Big Edie (Jennifer Strand) still has her voice, and as she sits on the front porch singing along to the phonograph record we are transported back to an earlier time in the same place, 1941.”The Girl Who Has Everything” refers, ironically, to Little Edie Beale, the girl, now 56, who always wanted everything. We won’t see the elder Little Edie (Nicky McDonnell) until the opening of the second act, which returns us to 1973, but in the prologue we hear her abrasive shouting from inside the house.
Like the film, the stage version of Grey Gardens is more a character study than a tightly plotted thriller, and its real focus is the mother/daughter relationship of the Edith Beales, a relationship of dependency, affection, torment, longing and fear, which by end of play has come to seem like a record set on endless loop, in which the grooves are worn deeper, deeper with each successive playing.
Act One has the seeming less of real life than of a backward projected memory-fantasy that is taken up, we can imagine, again and again in the minds of mother and daughter. Ah, if only things had been different! They could have been, almost, if people were a little different, a little more considerate, if just a few choices had been differently made…what starts off as a promising social howdy do — the engagement of Little Edie (Kate Collins Brown) to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. (Marshall Cesena) – with peppy smiling characters (including the Beales’ cousin/niece, a teenage Jacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier, played by radiant Cassie Cope) and hopes for a bright future turns halfway through into shadows and by the end, there’s come a tangible loss of hope. The ghosts of act one cannot be kept out of act two, which they haunt by superimposition.
The highlight of the first act is undoubtedly the plaintive “Will You?” sung by Nicky McDonnell, here playing the younger Big Edie.
The second act recreates a more focused version of the documentary film. Nicky McDonnell, very good as the younger Big Edie in act one, nails the older Little Edie in act two. Her looks, her gestures, her voice, get it right to a tee – there is no sense of discrepancy between the real life person as captured in the film and the character on stage. Almost, that is – for Ms. McDonnell brings to the part a hint of comic awareness that is present but surely less so in the original.
Jennifer Strand’s older Big Edie struck me as livelier and more animated than her real life counterpart at the same age. Ms. Strand is delightful in the part, and what is most impressive is her ability to combine in seamless, utterly natural manner the whimsy of the character together with its caustic humor and darker still, its tormented/tormenting edge. Ms. Strand also brings to the role her lovely singing voice – there is a line in which Big Edie says something to the effect that she would spend her life in song if she could, and when she starts up it is as though the windows were opened and spring air with birdsong and breeze were let in to a house long musty, enclosed, and sad.
Act two also features the strange and humorous if desperate relationship of the two Edies with an odd scruffy teenager played by Marshall Cesena, who is very convincing in the role.
On the whole, the music in act two is more compelling than in the first act. There are several highlights, but the two I will mention are “Will you?,” reprised and even more poignant in duet (Strand and McDonnell), and “Another Winter in a Sumer Town,” again a duet, one that seems an obvious but still meaningful metaphor for the life of Little Edie and her mother’s. The musical ends with the excruciating repeat of “The Girl Who Has Everything.”
As always at the Little Theatre of Alexandria, the sets by John Downing are well-done, lavish and realistic, and the costumes by Grant Kevin Land fitting. I will single out Tommy Scott’s lighting design for particular praise. Abstract, shifting, and intense, never intrusive but always focusing the dramatic action, the lights heighten the feeling (whatever that means) of the same, especially at key moments, and sharpen its moods. Kudos to Conductor Leah Koscis and her nine terrific musicians for their fine work.
I also want to call out the performance of Blakeman Brophy as George Gould Strong, Big Edie’s longtime piano player and kept man (houseboy not lover), who adds a dash of grounded, if weary, wit to a household that is – well, up there and out there.
The Little Alexandria’s production of Grey Gardens is the highlight of the 2006 theatre season (so far), and you should not miss it.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
Wolfe Street, in Alexandria, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 683-0496, or purchase them online.
Interviews with cast and crew at The Little Theatre of Alexandria Blog.
Watch the Maysles Documentary ‘Grey Gardens’ on the real Edies.