“They can get you in East Hampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday.” Hmm. Bear that little admonition in mind as we explore the milieu of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little Edie” as they navigate their way after losing their money in a community where big money is the single valued commodity. This is the world explored in the 1975 film documentary “Grey Gardens,” which inspired the musical currently running at Actor’s Express through October 10.
The film and musical would probably not exist were it not for the fact that Edith and Little Edie were the aunt and cousin of the most famous woman in the world, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. But they are, Blanche, they are; and in a celebrity-obsessed culture the telling of their story became irresistible. The film now has a cult following, and the musical had a Broadway run in 2006-2007 of about 300 performances and won three Tony Awards, including Best Actress for the apparently luminous Christine Ebersole, whose performance I’m sorry I missed. NY Times critic Ben Brantley called her work “a pearl of incalculable price in a show that is, at best, costume jewelry.”
Uh oh. All may not be well in this expertly directed (Freddie Ashley), beautifully acted Express version (especially by the two leads, Jill Hames and Kathleen McManus) because they lead a show that is fascinating to watch but doesn’t truly grab you on a visceral level. Still, the Beales are funny, flamboyant, and heartbreaking, and attention must be paid. Grey Gardens is their 28-room East Hampton mansion, resplendent in Act I (1941), dilapidated in Act II (1973). There’s something a little disquieting in how we seem to enjoy watching the wealthy learn to negotiate squalor. But the Beale women do it without self-pity and with style; now that’s a nifty trick, and it draws us in.
Act I shows us a handsome Edith Beale (Ms. Hames, in a fine performance) preparing an engagement party for her daughter Edie (Sarah Turner in this act) to Joseph Kennedy Jr.(Justin McGough). Major Bouvier (Wade Benson) pooh-poohs his wife’s joy and prowess as a singer; undaunted, both Edith and Little Edie share this passion. It helps sustain them, even if women in their position simply did not perform professionally. (Remember when John Kennedy Jr. briefly took up acting in college? His mother quickly put a stop to that.) Michael Monroe makes the most of a rather thankless role as Gould, Edith’s gay piano-playing friend.
The opulent life has vanished by Act II as the now 56-year-old Little Edie lives with her mother Edith, now elderly and brilliantly played by Kathleen McManus. Edie begins the act with “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” and ends it with the haunting “Another Winter in a Summer Town.” So—they ain’t got a barrel of money; maybe they’re ragged and funny, but they travel along, singing a song, side by side. (Sorry—couldn’t resist.) However, they keep their fierce individuality, style, and intelligence, and they dare you to feel sorry for them. Incidentally, both leading ladies are fine singers.
The music is by Scott Frankel; the lyrics by Michael Korie; the book by Doug Wright, who won a Pulitzer for his play “I Am My Own Wife.” Mr. Wright comments that we all have more in common with the Beale ladies than perhaps we’d care to admit. The themes here are universal: roads not taken, missed opportunities, love laced with resentment, insidious decay, reality versus delusion, and the realization that much of life is not black and white, but literally “grey.” The “sacred misfits” of “Grey Gardens” may show you more than you bargained for. The show is an Atlanta premiere. www actors-express.com