Grey Gardens: The Musical Exceeds Expectations -- If You Know the Source Material

Grey Gardens: The Musical is not for everyone. One's ability to truly enjoy this camp musical depends on one's knowledge of (and affection for) the documentary on which it's based, and in how well the leading ladies impersonate the famous recluses at the center of its story. Fortunately for Tempe Little Theatre (which scored a major coup by snagging this Arizona première), the show's opening-night crowd was crammed with Grey Gardens fans who approved of the impersonations of Big Edie and Little Edie, the true stars of this show.

They are the women we discovered in Grey Gardens, the 1973 documentary lensed by David and Albert Maysles about a reclusive mother and daughter living in a ramshackle mansion filled with garbage and raccoons in the Hamptons. Big Edie was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis' aunt; Little Edie, her cousin. Mother thought of herself as a retired singing star; daughter, a failed debutante still trying to jump-start her life from the squalor of a falling-down house named Grey Gardens.

The trouble with all subsequent translations of the Beales' story — the HBO movie starring Drew Barrymore, the pair of dramatic plays, and this Tony-winning musical — is that they devote so very much time to the Beales' early life. And the healthy, Social Register Ediths are less interesting than the crazy, decrepit women they became.

And so one endures Doug Wright's rather tedious first act, a drawing room comedy in search of a punch line that describes the grandeur of the Bouvier Beales' former life. Set against Douglas Clarke's cheap-looking, little-theater attempt at opulence, it's a fictionalized account of Little Edie's engagement party to Joseph Kennedy Jr. before this branch of an illustrious American family was whittled down to two crazy old ladies who became famous for being a mess.

Kate Likness is grand as Big Edie, a dowager whose husband has no interest in her, and whose obstreperous daughter (played with comic sparkle by Katrin Murdock) can't be tamed. Both ladies sing brilliantly and are fortunately not saddled with mimicking the younger, affluent Edies. But the result is an act that's pleasant (and nicely directed by Phillip Fazio) but mostly pointless, too. Are we collecting clues about how these gals ended up as addle-pated slobs?

It's Act Two that Grey Gardens fans want, and the opening-night audience roared its approval even before the act commenced with Brandi Bigley's charming rendition of Little Edie's "Revolutionary Costume for Today," the most memorable number in Scott Frankel and Michael Korie's score. Bigley and Shari Watts are the second act Edies, and it is their company for which we've waited. To canned music and on a stunningly trash-strewn bedroom set, they perform expert impressions of the eccentric women we know and love from the Maysles film, and we (in spite of the presence of a rather listless supporting cast) are enraptured. While Act One is played straight, this second act is presentational — played straight out into the audience, to whom the Edies shout and sing dialogue lifted wholesale from the documentary.

The overall effect is of a costume party for a rarefied fan club — people who are thrilled by a brooch pinned to a head-scarf (just like Little Edie's!) or the way Bigley waves a tiny American flag during a dance routine (just like in the documentary!) or Watts' flawless take on owl-eyed, bedridden Big Edie. Which makes me wonder how audiences for Tempe Little Theatre (which, with this show, has changed its name to Tempe Live! Theater) will respond to Grey Gardens. Will theatergoers who aren't well-versed in Little Edie's various head wraps or who don't care about whether or not the Marble Faun likes Big Edie's corn still enjoy a musical about a couple of crazy old bags living in squalor? Will they, as Little Edie once famously said, be "pulverized by this latest thing?"

The Grey Gardens fan in me hopes so.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela