Grey Gardens Book by Doug Wright. Music by Scott Frankel. Lyrics by Michael Korie. Based on the film "Grey Gardens" by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer & Susan Froemke. Directed by Michael Greif. Musical staging by Jeff Calhoun. Scenic design by Allen Moyer. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Projection design by Wendell K. Harrington. Hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. Orchestrations by Bruce Coughlin. Cast: Christine Ebersole, Mary Louise Wilson, Matt Cavenaugh, Erin Davie, Kelsey Fowler, Sarah Hyland, Michael Potts, Bob Stillman, and John McMartin.
Once upon a time, there lived a woman who was the toast of all those around her. Those closest to her considered her their greatest hope for a shining future, and encouraged as many as possible to fill her opulent home so she could beguile them with her beauty and grace. But no fawning admirers could disguise the truth that she was ultimately a daughter who could be cut down to size by her mother just when she most needed her support.
This is not the story of Edie Beale of the musical Grey Gardens, which has shakily made the improbable leap from Playwrights Horizons to Broadway's Walter Kerr. No, the charmed woman of the moment is Christine Ebersole, who's starring in it under the most fortuitous, unlikely, and difficult of circumstances: The show was brought to Broadway on the strength of her alone.
She made a splash unlike any in recent memory when the show opened this past spring: Some critics anointed her; others nearly deified her, all but proclaiming her performance unmatched in the annals of musical theatre. True, most everyone admitted the show itself was no timeless achievement, but what did that matter when there was Ebersole's magnificence in which to bask?
This production, directed by Michael Greif, might have been brought to Broadway to capitalize on Ebersole's once-in-a-career acclaim, but authors Scott Frankel (music), Michael Korie (lyrics), and Doug Wright (book) have worked tirelessly since Off-Broadway to improve it into a more worthy vehicle for its star. In rewriting scenes and replacing songs, they've succeeded in making Grey Gardens unquestionably tighter and more dramatically satisfying than it was when it first opened in March. But it has become so at the expense of Ebersole's luminescence and the electric theatricality it generated.
The show is no longer steered by its lead actress, but by its now-central character: Edith Bouvier Beale, the aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier (later Kennedy and later still Onassis). In the early 1940s she was the conquering queen of the East Hampton social scene, but by 1973 became a senile recluse living with her 56-year-old daughter Edie in the cat-and-raccoon-infested Grey Gardens, once one of America's most glamorous homes. The musical details the story's beginning and end, with Act I set almost exclusively in the unspoiled Grey Gardens of 1941 (the set, skimpy-looking on Broadway, is by Allen Moyer) with Ebersole as Edith and Erin Davie as young Edie; Act II takes place in 1973 with Ebersole playing Edie and Mary Louise Wilson the ancient Edith past her zenith.
The first act, redolent of a period upper-crust drawing-room comedy and concerning young Edie's betrothal to Joe Kennedy Jr., might seem like an aperitif in preparation for the second act, a feeling-by-feeling recreation of the cult Maysles brothers documentary that brought to light these women's stories in all their heartbreaking glory. But while the first act has always been more strongly written, relying more on storytelling than pandering to the audience's identification with (or adoration of) the women, it is now more directly and movingly tied to the ruinous errata of the second.
All the traipsing around of Edith, Edie, Joe (Matt Cavenaugh), Edith's father "Major" Bouvier (John McMartin), and Edith's accompanist George Gould Strong (Bob Stillman) now better supports and prescribes Edith's tragic fall. You understand, as you didn't before, the depth of the relationship between the two women, Edith's infrequently engaged maternal instincts, and the elusive nature of the familial stability she so desperately craves. This roots Edith's Act II behavior in a deeper, more familiar history that gives her derangement the well-intentioned but disastrous quality - and complete dramatic arc - it needs to affect in grandly musical terms.
The story is no longer merely about two zany, dysfunctional women. When Wilson sings "The Cake I Had" (she ate it, too) or "Jerry Likes My Corn" (about the young man, played by Cavenaugh, who completes her life in ways her adulterous husband couldn't), she draws us into Edith's agonized struggle, collapsing her dilapidated, 28-room prison into a captivating pinpoint. Edith's voice, wobbly and uncertain, possessing only a whisper of its former vibrancy, pierces the heart and reminds us that time can - and eventually will - rob us of everything.
Wilson's dazzling work as the grandest of fallen grande dames remains the true treasure of Grey Gardens, even richer and more rewarding now than it was Off-Broadway. The suave Stillman has transformed the brittle George into the first act's wisecracking spiritual center, Edith's true love and her crucial emotional anchor during her mounting crises. Their parting duet, the quiet, Coward-ish "Drift Away," is now the show's saddest and most uplifting number, and one of the few times Frankel and Korie's score unequivocally feels more like sophisticated, adult musical theatre than high-level Fringe Festival camp.
Stillman and Wilson, giving the production's most confident and Tony caliber-performances, aren't matched by most of their castmates. McMartin can't make his archetypal disapproving father figure into a real person any more than Cavenaugh can bring anything but a silly accent to the caddish, sketchily drawn Joe; Davie, though finding more hinges to loosen in young Edie than did her Off-Broadway predecessor Sara Gettelfinger, still never completely triumphs as a nervous breakdown in the making. If Wright's book now brings additional clarity and humanity to their first-act concerns, they all remain supporting players designed to dissolve into our memories as 1941 evaporates into history. (Their reappearances in bit parts in the weakest sections of Act II don't help.)
It's with Edith - particularly in songs like "Drift Away"; the catchy "The Five-Fifteen," anticipating her husband's arrival with a suffocating irony; and "Will You?", her aching cry to her dying-inside daughter - that our sympathies must lie. Ebersole, grandiose in William Ivey Long's costumes and with a voice of molten gold, ensures we experience every one.
But in a second act about Edith's fall from grace, Ebersole's personal journey as the show's star seems incomplete. With Edie disconnected from the primary story of Edith's decline, Ebersole's showpiece numbers - the ramblingly comic "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," about her unique fashion sense, and the patriotic, excrescent "The House We Live In" - no longer endear us to the actress channeling an eccentric soul, but distract us from the dissipating spirit Ebersole spent the first act making us care so much about. (A revised Act I opening, prominently featuring Wilson's crumbling Edith, further underscores this.)
The point is never made more succinctly than in "Another Winter in a Summer Town," Ebersole's haunting 11-o'clock number (and the show's best song) in which Edie finally arranges to escape her mother's enveloping shadow and fulfill what remains of her own destiny. When Edith cries out just as Edie steps outside, you can feel Edie's heart shatter as she realizes where her future unavoidably lies. But while Ebersole mesmerizes here, your eye can't help but drift to the woman abandoned 32 years earlier, and who might be again now. She means too much to you for you to allow Ebersole the final word.
While this is devastating to the show - no star vehicle can survive the loss
of its star - it's as right and compelling as this musical gets. When the
show was about Ebersole, it grabbed your soul; now that it's about Edith, it
grabs your heart. If Grey Gardens can only do one, the latter is the
correct choice, though one wishes this musical could - like the greatest
shows in the canon - do both at the same time.