Book by Doug Wright,
Music by Scott Frankel,
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Based on the documentary by David and Albert Maysles
Directed by Serge Seiden
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Gary McMillan
Studio Theatre’s Grey Gardens is a beautifully rendered and wonderfully off-kilter production of this Off Broadway-to-Broadway cult musical. Wealth and ZIP code are often the determining factors between the labels of madness and eccentricity. And as goes the old saying, eccentricity doesn’t run in the Beale family of East Hampton … it gallops. The 1973 documentary on which the musical is based chronicles the dysfunctional lives of Edith and Edie Bouvier Beale, mother and middle-aged daughter, whose “reduced circumstances” and disordered behavior find them living in two dilapidated rooms of the family manse, Grey Gardens – the other twenty-some rooms having been sublet to a clutter of 52 cats, fleas, cobwebs and the attic given over to a raccoon. .
As prologue to the Act 2 slice of life, documentary-based musical, Douglas Wright (Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for I Am My Own Wife and Obie Award for Quills) has created an ingenious first act, set in 1941, following the briefest glimpse of the older Beale women in the opening scene. It is a day in celebration of Edie “Body Beautiful” Beale’s engagement. Mrs. Beale is single-handedly overseeing the preparations for the grand soiree in the absence of Mr. Beale, who remains in town on business and is not expected until the evening. However, we do meet the bride-to-be’s grandfather, prospective groom Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr., and cousins, Jacqueline (future First Lady Jackie) and Lee (future Princess Radziwill) Bouvier. Mrs. Beale’s live-in accompanist, George Strong Gould, features prominently as well. As she reviews the song list for the “impromptu” vocal recital which will dominate the party, it becomes increasingly clear that Edith Beale believes the universe revolves around her, regardless of Copernicus’s cosmology.
Tony Award nominee Barbara Walsh plays Edith Beale as the grand actress she believes herself to be. Every room, a stage; every person, her audience. She sparkles in the party planning song, “The Five-Fifteen,” and in the duet with Edie, “Two Peas in a Pod.” Her rendition of the lover’s ballad, “Will You,” is tender and mesmerizing. Jenna Sokolowski is the perky Edie, born to the breed but determined to be – pardon the overused expression – a maverick. She is mortified by her mother’s every attempt to steal the limelight, yet unwilling to bear the consequences of sustained confrontation … codependent before the term was popular. Bobby Smith is world weary and sardonic as Gould, the imported black sheep of the family, as Edie sees him. Ryan Hilliard, reprising the role of grandfather, Major Bouvier, from the original Off-Broadway production, gives the show a delightful jolt of humor, particularly when he exhorts his granddaughters, Jackie and Lee, to “Marry Well.” Simone Grossman and Alison Cenname as Jackie and Lee are both talented and endearing. Matthew Gardiner provides amusing choreography for this song as well as for Edie and Joe’s (Matthew Stucky) duet, “Goin’ Places,” where Joe reveals his father’s plans to land him in the Senate and presidency and Edie declares her desire to usher into the White House an American style crusade (poor, drab Eleanor has other things on her mind).
Among the more jaw-dropping funny moments is the rendition of “Hominy Grits” by Edith, Gould, Jackie and Lee. That Scott Frankel and Michael Korie dreamed up this song makes me wonder as much about their mental health as that of Edith and Edie. Just plain wacko.
Act 1 closes on a note of multiple losses. Edith finds herself without a husband, a son-in-law, an accompanist, a trust fund and, yet unbeknownst to her, a daughter. Fresh on the heels of her father’s accusation – You are the most pitiable of creatures: an actress without as stage. – Edith rally’s her show-must-go -on spirit so as to not disappoint her guests. Gould predicts that when he’s gone Edith will find herself singing Tea for One. The song “Will You?” provides a melancholy mixture of hope and regret.
The drawing room dramedy that is Act 1 stands in stark contrast to the loony circus of Act 2. Barbara Walsh is again the central character, only now as the 56 year old Edie. Barbara Broughton plays mother Edith. Gone are the rest of the family and relatives except as ghostly memories. This is a day in the life of the – if not deinstitutionalized, the uninstitutionalized. Walsh and Broughton deliver two of the finest performances anyone could hope to see. They are, as Edie insists, S-T-A-U-N-C-H staunch women, fiercely determined survivors; alternately commiserating and squabbling, and always evading eviction notices from the Health Department. Walsh is a wonder to behold from Quixotic start (“The Revolutionary Costume for Today”) to heartrending finish (“Another Winter in a Summer Town”). She clearly understands the quirky logic of Edie the way she grasped the narcissism of Edith in Act 1. Her performance is deep and rich with complexity. Are mother and daughter over the brink into mental illness or are they perceived as such because each chose to transgress the traditional roles for women in their social class? Or does the truth lie somewhere in between?
Broughton brings to her performance an almost beatific quality: blissfully serene and happily contented with her life and her lot. Summed up perfectly in one line, It’s a goddamned beautiful day, shut up!, and in the song, “Jerry Likes My Corn.” She will steal your heart when you hear her sing “The Cake I Had,” a Norman Vincent Peale-inspired anthem to her decision to choose happiness.
Matthew Stucky (Joe in Act 1) is Jerry, handyman and errand boy, who’s stolen the affection of Edith, much to Edie’s consternation. The contrast of the two roles makes Stucky’s performance all the more amusing. James Foster, Jr. (the Beale family’s butler, Brooks Sr. in Act 1) is gardener Brooks Jr. in Act 2. One wonders what the Foster men really make of the Beale women.
Overall, Grey Gardens provides poignant character studies of Big Edie and Little Edie captured at high and low arches in the trajectory of their lives. The music captures the style of the periods as it sheds light on their personalities and relationship. The show has a beautiful set designed by Russell Methany; the intimacy of the theatre will make you feel as though you are on sitting on the patio of Grey Gardens viewing the splendid parlor or the cluttered and grubby bedroom in which the senior Beales reside. For the first act, Alex Jaeger’s costumes are impeccable 1941 high fashion; the act two costumes are as zany as the women … Edie Beale’s fashion revolution writ large and bizarre. Indeed, for these staunch ladies, the full-length velvet glove truly does hide the fist.
Studio has another major musical hit on its hands. Splendid casting and sure direction by Serge Seiden (who also gave us Studio’s acclaimed production of Souvenir, another show about an eccentric socialite and her gay, sardonic accompanist). I’ve now seen the show twice and I would be happy to see it again, it is every bit as satisfying as the New York productions. This is a must see for musicals lovers as well as for all who appreciate fine acting.
Running Time: 2:25 with 1 intermission
When: Nov. 12 – Jan 4. Tues, Wed, Thurs, Fri, Sat at 8 pm, Sun at 7 pm, Sat & Sun at 2 pm
Where: Studio Theatre in the Metheny Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC
Tickets: $49 – $69. Call 202 332-3300 or visit the website.