GREY GARDENS: Poor Little Rich Girls
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
Richmond Triangle Players
At: The Robert B Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, RVA 23230
Performances: June 24 – July 27, 2019.
Ticket Prices: $10-40
Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org
Grey Gardens, The Musical, with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie is a two-act musical that is full of humor and drama and emotion. But the two things that make this musical stand out are the fact that it is about real people and that both of these people are brought to life by the enormously talented Susan Sanford.
On the advice of a friend and colleague, I watched Albert and David Maysles’ 1976 documentary Grey Gardens prior to attending the musical. The award-winning cinéma-vérité chronicles the tragedy and wonder of these two women, both named Edie, both of whom defied the laws of society and blazed a trail that few would want to follow. Like a road-side accident, I didn’t want to watch, but it was impossible not to look and as fascinating and heart-rending as the documentary was, it didn’t even come close to the emotional roller coaster that Wright, Frankel, and Korie created in this musical, brought to life on the RTP stage by director Debra Clinton and musical director Kim Fox. I may have laughed at Sanford’s antics, both as “Big” Edie in the first act and “Little” Edie in the second act, but I was in tears by the time the cast took their final bows.
Grey Gardens, for those, like me, who do not follow society, was the estate of Edith Bouvier Beale, an aunt of our former First Lady, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, and her daughter, “Little” Edie Bouvier Beale. “Little” Edie was a debutante in the early 1940s, apparently with somewhat of a reputation, as she was nicknamed “Body Beautiful Beale.” Her young cousins Jacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier and her sister Lee Radziwill were apparently frequent visitors to the 28-room East Hampton Estate in its heyday. My favorite line, spoken by “Little” Edie in the second act: “It’s a mean, nasty Republican town.”
The first act of Grey Gardens, The Musical mixes fact and fiction, and it’s not clear where the line is drawn. But it seems that mother Edie’s love of singing went against her husband’s puritanical grain, and he took off to Mexico with his lover Linda and obtained a quickie divorce. After that, things quickly went downhill at Grey Gardens, and by the time we get to the second act – and by the time the Maysles show up with their cameras – the place has fallen into disrepair. Much of the dialogue in the second act is taken straight from the documentary – another reason to do the homework and watch it before seeing the show.
There are holes in the walls that allow free access to all the stray cats and racoons the two women have adopted, the mansion is full of fleas, and there is apparently little or no working plumbing. When “Little” Edie prepares a plate of pâté for her mother, the woman sitting next to me and I gasped, unsure if the surely expired can contained pâté or cat food. The Suffolk County Board of Health was on the verge of condemning the house and evicting the two Edies until their more solvent relatives stepped in and made the necessary repairs. It is unclear whether this made much of a difference in the Edies’ lifestyle – and I kept wondering how they were supporting themselves. Who was paying the taxes, and the grocery bill, and how is it that the lights were still on?
Practical considerations aside, Gray Gardens, The Musical is equally hilarious and heartbreaking. In addition to Susan Sanford, who acts and sings her heart out and is outrageously funny, first as the overbearing mother Edith Bouvier Beale in Act One and then as “Little” Edie in Act Two. Sanford does an impressive job balancing “Little” Edie’s desire to break away from her mother and become independent against her sense of responsibility to stay and take care of her mother. This dilemma is beautifully foreshadowed in Act One by Grey Garrett, who plays the Young “Little” Edie Beale. One minute Garrett is begging her mother, played by Sanford, not to sing, the next she is defending her right to do so when her grandfather, “Major” Bouvier, played by Kirk Morton, denigrates his daughter for her eccentricities and quiet consent to her absent husband’s affairs. Boomie Pedersen as “Big” Edie, the mother, in the Prologue and Act Two has mastered the role of the screaming, overbearing mother – possibly in the early to mid- stages of dementia, although with manipulating, narcissistic personalities it’s sometimes hard to tell – to the point where you almost forget she’s just acting. The dysfunctional chemistry between Pedersen and Sanford is a force to behold.
Also doing double duty were Durron Marquis Tyre, as the servant Brook, Sr., in Act One and his son, Brook, Jr., in Act Two and Elijah Williams as “Little” Edie’s fiancé Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. in Act One and “Big” Edie’s friend Jerry in Act Two. It was interesting that Brook, Sr., seemed more refined that his son. Sr. wore a cutaway suit, while Jr. wore overalls – a reflection of the state of the house. I liked Williams in his role as Jerry more than as Kennedy, perhaps because the second character and his relationship to the family more closely reflected the oddities and conflicts of these fascinating women.
Caroline Berry and Anya Rothman were sweet and adorable as the young Jackie and Lee Bouvier, and Eddie Webster had an interesting supporting role as George Gould Strong, “Big” Edie’s accompanist and companion.
Frank Foster’s scenic design was serviceable, but unremarkable, although the production did a good job changing from relative grandeur in Act One to shabbiness in Act Two. Matthew Banes’ lighting and Joey Luck’s sound design both enhanced the overall effects, but Ruth Hedberg’s costumes and Joel Furtick’s hair and makeup really nailed it. “Little” Edie’s costumes for Act Two were spot on and would probably get a word of approval from the real “Little” Edie.
The broad and flat Boston-Long Island accents were often startling – even to this Brooklyn girl – but seemed pretty accurate. Director Clinton even choreographed some lively dance steps, and musical director Kim Fox and her musicians helped keep things moving along at a nice pace.
Grey Gardens, The Musical is one of the most heart-wrenching musicals you will ever see – and I hope you do see it. After the first week of performances, Richmond Triangle Players had to extend the run from July 13 to July 27, and tickets will likely be hard to come by for the remainder of the run.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: John MacLellan
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