It's great, though not just because it shares its structural form with the semi-biographical movies Citizen Kane and Lawrence of Arabia. All three start with dramatic flash-forwards, before a glittering flashbackand all three are about people who "have their cake and eat it, too," though each central character is doomed to end his or her years in darkness and irony. And great, not just because Grey Gardens has a fantastic double role for its leading lady (here, the splendid Hollis Resnik), but also because of a complex and insightful score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, rooted in a book by Doug Wright, tracing its lineage back to a documentary by the filmmaking Maysles brothers.
That documentary gives the stage musical its strong central characters: the mother (Big Edie) and daughter (Little Edie), with the middle-aged versions of each played by Ms. Resnik, in that order, in successive acts. Messrs. Frankel and Korie weave quotes and attitudes into their songs from the source material, successfully achieving what they call a "Philip Barry quality" during the 1940s segment, where the coruscating Tempe Thomas is Edie the youthful bride-to-be, and Ms. Resnik her mother: the uber-Auntie Mame, planning an engagement party. In act two, three decades later, Ann Whitney is acridly funny as the still-controlling mother, now in her dotage. In both acts, director BJ Jones creates great excitement, even as his focus narrows: keeping bitterness (mostly) at bay with regular jolts of humor, pathos and revelation.
Laying out the mores of 1941, Dennis Kelly is the slightly wacky grand-uncle, who also has a rousing turn as Norman Vincent Peale thirty-two years later, with a full chorus near the end. And back in that July before Pearl Harbor, Patrick Sarb gets to show his fine "leading man" side as Joe Kennedy Jr. (though his lock-jawed accent is sometimes a bit hard to decipher), later returning in the Watergate era to display surprising comic ability as a teenaged handy-man in the cat-infested squalor that remains.
Everyone on stage seems to know they have a terrific show on their hands, from George Keating as a sort of household Cole Porter, to Sean Blake as the butler, to the children playing little Jacqueline Bouvier and her sister Lee (the sharp-as-can-be Grace Etzkorn and Arielle Dayan). It's hard to pick out the best songs, because there's hardly a dull one in the score: "Will You," the recurring, haunting love song; and "Jerry Loves My Corn" paired with "Around the World" are among the highlights. You'll feel like a water balloon full of tears when Ms. Resnik sings the ballad, "Another Winter in a Summer Town," at a moment of great decision. Much earlier, the actress (as Big Edie) achieves one of her most dizzying heights simply by listening: is she smug and disdainful, or waifish and vulnerable, as her young daughter sings "The Telegram"? All of the above, and all at once, it seems. The bride-to-be regains her spotlight for a moment with a glorious diminuendo at the end of that song. But with steady pruning, her astonishing mother is able to raise a reciprocally tragic-comic character, to serve her all her days.
Through December 21st, 2008 at the Northlight Theatre, located at 9501 Skokie Blvd, in Skokie, IL. For information call (847) 673-6300 or visit them online at www.northlight.org.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity