Grey Gardens, which was nominated for numerous Tony Awards in 2007, is based on the famous 1975 documentary of the same name by Albert and David Maysles. The brothers filmed days in the lives of elderly Edith "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, who were aunt and cousin to former first lady Jackie Kennedy. The pair lived with dozens of cats and raccoons in a dilapidated East Hampton Beach mansion deemed unfit for human habitation by authorities. The women were all but cut off from the outside world (and from reality in many ways) and made for fascinating subjects of the documentary. The musical is structured to showcase this period in act two and to contrast it to their life of wealth and social significance found in the first act. The show begins in 1941 as Little Edie prepares to announce her engagement to Joseph Kennedy Jr. in front of an audience of press and East Hampton elites. The controlling and manipulative behavior of Big Edie derails her daughter's future and sets in motion the fall from grace for the pair that leads to the 1973 conditions of the second act.
Doug Wright (I Am My Own Wife) essentially wrote two books for the musical. The first act takes people from the lives of the mother and daughter and forms a fictionalized situation (the engagement party of Little Edie and Joe) demonstrating the conflict between the ladies. The characters and their lifestyles are well defined, and there is a nice balance between the comedic and serious aspects of the story. For the second act, Mr. Wright chose many of the wild moments from the documentary and carefully reconstructed the off-kilter dialogue. Though act two is the meat of the show, the first act is necessary to provide a contrast to show how far the family has fallen.
The score for Grey Gardens by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) contains many unique character-driven songs, as well as some fun performance numbers. Though the songs are individually well-crafted and wonderfully suitable to the show, there's a lack of cohesion among them that leads to the overall score coming across as less than the sum of its parts. Individual song highlights include the bouncy "The Five-Fifteen," the intentionally offensive yet hilarious "Hominy Grits," a haunting "Drift Away," "Will You?" which serves double duty as a performance number and as a mother's plea for her daughter not to leave"The Revolutionary Costume For Today," "Jerry Likes My Corn" (with some excellent rhyming) and the heart-breaking, introspective "Another Winter In A Summer Town."
Part of the unique appeal of Grey Gardens is that it provides the chance for an actress to play the mother, "Big Edie," in act one as well as daughter "Little Edie" following intermission. At ETC, Neva Rae Powers seems slightly out of her element as the overbearing mother, but is a delight as the (perhaps certifiably) kooky middle-aged daughter as showcased in the documentary, and always sings with style and precision. Cincinnati favorite Dale Hodges is a hoot as somewhat senile "Big Edie" in act two, providing sufficient warmth and comedic touch in the fun role. As young "Little Edie" in the 1941 scene, CCM student Ashley Kate Adams proves to be an exquisite singer, but comes across as too stiff and formal in her acting.
Scott Wooley skillfully handles the double duty of playing Gould, piano accompanist to "Big Edie," and serving as musical director for the production. Last minute replacement Ken Early is fine as Brooks. Charlie Clark is perfect as Joe Kennedy, but seems too old as teenaged Jerry. Greg Hudson's musical timing is off a bit as Major Bouvier/Norman Vincent Peale, but he is otherwise a solid contributor, as are child performers Olivia Catherine Diehl (Lee) and Ellen Ehrsam (Jackie).
Director D. Lynn Meyers provides some fluid staging and appropriate tone throughout, though the timing in act one is off between the actors. The choreography by Patti James is fun and apt.
In order to fit a three-story house into a vertically challenged performance space, set designer Brian Mehring has positioned the top two floors on a sharp 45 degree angle. Though distracting at first, discerning audience members might soon draw parallels between the design and the characters, as the inhabitants of the dwelling seem to be sliding down a steep descent into madness and despair just as the house does. Mr. Mehring's lighting is solid, with a nice touch suggesting the overgrown plants of the yard in the 1973 setting. Shannon Roe Lutz deserves praise for some detailed props in assistance of Mr. Mehring. The costumes by Reba Senske don't seem entirely period appropriate for 1940s high society, but are attractive and fun. The sound system had its share of pops and other noise during the performance viewed, but the pre-curtain sound effects assist in setting the mood and scene.
Grey Gardens is a challenging piece to stage, and Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati is mostly up to the task. Worthwhile (if not perfect) performances and capable direction and design help to make the piece an entertaining and enlightening experience for audiences. ETC presents the show through September 28, 2008. For tickets, please call (513) 421-3555.