Grey Gardens Fascinates at ACT Theatre
Edith Bouvier, aunt of Jacquelyn Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and her namesake daughter, dubbed "Little Edie," drew scandal sheet notoriety in the early '70s for the declining state of their once grand mansion Grey Gardens in South Hampton, New York. Though Jackie and her sister Lee Radziwill ultimately provided funds for repairs to bring the estate up to code, and prevent their aunt and cousin's eviction, documentarians Albert and David Maysles won the Beales' permission to film them, in their own words, amidst the relative squalor of their once high society home, which they shared with many cats, raccoons and other vermin. The musical, as did the later HBO film, shows us this side of the mother and daughter, but also glimpses backwards to how they ended up that way.
Following a brief 1973 prologue, act one is set in 1941, hours before a radiant young Little Edie is to be feted on her engagement to Joseph Kennedy Jr. Her mother Edith has planned a lengthy musical recital, accompanied by her live-in gay accompanist George "Gould" Strong. Little Edie is aghast at this and implores her mother not to steal focus from her evening. Edith's tyrannical Father, Major Bouvier, young nieces Jacqueline and Lee Bouvier, and the family's butler Brooks are in various stages of preparation for the event, and anticipate the arrival of the guests, which include the senior Kennedys and Phelan Beale, Edith's estranged husband and Edie's Father. Joe Jr., already aware that Little Edie's planned stage career conflicts with his own political ambitions and codes of social behavior for his wife, is dismayed when Edith indiscreetly mentions tawdry elements from Young Edie's past, which caused her to be nicknamed "Body Beautiful Beale." An appalled Edie assures him her father will put things in the proper perspective. But when he telegrams he will not attend and is instead in Mexico for a quickie divorce, Joe breaks off the engagement and leaves. Devastated, Little Edie packs a suitcase and departs, leaving the deserted Edith to entertain her guests.
Thirty-two years later, Grey Gardens is a ruin, the eyesore of the neighborhood. Little Edie, a failed entertainer who returned to Grey Gardens when her mother's health declined, bridles at the eviction notices they receive from the township of East Hampton. Edith, elderly and somewhat senile, controls Edie nonetheless, and their only human contacts are Brooks Junior (son of their former Butler) and Jerry, a long-haired high school dropout handyman whom Edith adores. After many skirmishes, Edie tries to leave her mother once and for all, but Edith's pitiful cries for help get the best of her, and the pair remain dysfunctionally tied in each other's sorry lives.
Director Kurt Beattie handles the drama of the piece well, though staging the show in the round in the ACT Allen theatre offers challenges not always met. Primarily, particularly in act two, it means not seeing all the priceless facial expression of the actresses playing the Beales. There are also sound issues which cause wonderful lyrics to be lost, as well as some crucial lines, but this can surely be remedied as the run goes on. Beattie's cast is as good a one as Seattle has to offer, starting with Broadway great Patti Cohenour, exquisitely handling the tricky one-two punch of playing the haughty Edith Beale of act one, and the flamboyantly quirky Little Edie of act two. Her vocal on Edith's "Will You?" act one finale is the wistful, warm sound one associates with this veteran Christine of Phantom of the Opera and Rosa Bud from Drood, but she is even more impressive with her rip-roaring comic belting out of "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," and her effortless ability to reduce us to tears on Edie's eleven o'clock stunner, "Another Winter in a Summer Town." Suzy Hunt as the dotty older Edith is outstanding, moving from coquettish to demanding to pathetic in the wink of an eye, and she sends the laughter meter off the charts with her two big solos "The Cake I Had" and especially the endearingly oddball "Jerry Likes My Corn." Jessica Skerritt-Stokinger is a limpidly lovely beauty of a Young Little Edie, and neatly hints at the hysteria hiding behind her debutante grace. Her voice is golden, and she partners Cohenour with aplomb on the pastiche buddy song "Two Peas in a Pod." Matt Owen offers an affable if mildly caricatured young Joe Kennedy, but really comes into his own and skillfully pushes the boundaries of bizarre with his hilariously off-kilter Jerry (who likes the corn).
Mark Anders channels a little Cole, a little Noël, and a lot of piano bar pianist as the leech-like Gold, and Allen Fitzpatrick is at his considerable best as the cantankerous Major Bouvier, and gets to show off his rich voice in song as Norman Vincent Peale cameos with the giddy "Choose to be Happy." Ekello J. Harrid, Jr. doesn't get quite as much mileage out of the two generations of the Brooks family as he might, but Analiese Emerson Guettinger and Montserrat Fleck are perfect little debs to be as Jackie and Lee.
Noah Racey's musical staging is fluid and sharp, while the Musical Direction of Chris DiStefano is solid, though his band being located off-stage creates a few moments of awkward coordination with the singers.
Matthew Smucker's set is well-designed for the space, with hydraulic set piece changes creating an easy flow between scenes of Grey Gardens in its heyday and in disrepair, while Mary Louise Geiger's lighting adds much, especially in the act two scenes where the ghosts pop up. Catherine Hunt's costumes were classy when called for, and suitably tacky for the latter day Beale ladies attire.
Grey Gardens is as dark as a Sondheim show, but laced with a humor found in few of Stephen's smashes. It's a welcome change of pace from many musicals seen here, and the production, good as it is, will probably be even more satisfying with just a few tweaks.
Grey Gardens which extended prior to opening, runs through June 2, 2012, at ACT Theatre, 700 Union Street, downtown Seattle. For tickets and additional info go to either the 5th Avenue website at www.5thavenue.org or the ACT website at www.acttheatre.org .