By Patrick Hurley
A pair of powerhouse performances move Grey Gardens musical, playing now through August 13 at the Ahmanson Theater, from mere throwback to something special.
The musical, like the documentary of the same name, tells the story of Edith Bouvier Beale (Betty Buckley), and her daughter “Little” Edie (Rachel York), and how they were discovered in 1973 living in absolute squalor with cats, raccoons, and fleas in their East Hampton home known as Grey Gardens. The home itself, by 1973, was literally falling apart and rotting. Anyone familiar with the documentary will come into the show with very strong memories of who these two very eccentric women are. And Ms. York and Ms. Buckley do not disappoint.
The musical starts in 1973, but Act One mostly takes place in 1941, when Grey Gardens was at it’s peak, and life was grand. A younger Edith (played by Rachel York), and “little” Edie (played in act one by Sarah Hunt ) are preparing for a party. Act One deals with the inciting incident that leads to the downfall of the two Edith’s. The dilemma of such a story is that how these two seemingly normal women became the two not-so normal women in the documentary is just not that interesting. It’s a story of white privilege gone bad. “Little” Edie, in Act One doesn’t really line up with her character in Act Two, and all the setup in the world just can’t really be earned if the character isn’t developed enough. In the case of this play, Act Two is the main event, it’s kind of great, and perhaps the first half is necessary as some sort of expositional introduction to these women, but again, they just don’t seem like the same characters. Where the first half is a frothy, 1940s musical comedy, the second is a disturbing, yet hilarious character study. And so the two worlds don’t fully align.
Doug Wright, who wrote the book, is a very skilled writer and he does wonders with the two Edith’s in the second part, but utilizes too much under-dramatized theatrical tropes in the first. There are far too many gay jokes at the expense of Edith’s” friend George Gould Strong (Bryan Batt), too many puns poking fun at the time period, the future Jackie Kennedy, and the songs, music by Scott Frankel and Lyrics by Michael Korie are not particularly catchy or plot driven. So it’s a passable first half because we’re waiting for the deconstruction of these two women, but it’s not enough. We don’t see a good enough reason or even keys into the text that would indicate the downfall that awaits our two leading ladies.
Director Michael Wilson pieces it all together deftly, and gets solid performances from the supporting cast. The pacing of the play is too slow, but he keeps it from slogging too much.
The projection design, by Jason H. Thompson, of the documentary footage, that is being shot as the audience watches and projected on the sides of the set walls, is a wonderful addition to the second act. It not only provides a fresh multimedia aspect but allows the two women to appear larger than life, and we get to see some great up close and personal reactions.
The set, designed by Jeff Cowie, is incredible. Grey Gardens, both in its prime and then in its ruin are sights to behold.
The real reasons to see this show, however, are the two leads. First, the amazing Betty Buckley, who is still a vocal dynamo, and holds onto the wit and humanity of Edith in an endearing and gentle way. She makes shabby look completely elegant and graceful.
Rachel York is astonishing as Little Edie. She captures the essence of the strange woman in her vocal acuity and in her fierce comic timing, and then at the same time she is able to break your heart in her final song. It’s a performance that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater. These two women are so impressive that no matter what the shortcomings of the play may be, they make a trip to Grey Gardens a memorable and effective one.
Grey Gardens: The Musical
Book by Doug Wright
Music by Scott Frankel
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Directed by Michael Wilson
July 13- August 13
For tickets (213) 972-4400 or online at CenterTheatreGroup.org, or by visiting the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre.
The Ahmanson Theatre is located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles, 90012.