note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Beverly Creasey
The eccentric Beales, as documented on film by the Maysles brothers, are a tough act to follow on stage because they were so very, touchingly real in the movie. The musical, GREY GARDENS (at the Lyric Stage thru June 6th) invents a first act for the ladies to complement and explain the documentary material which serves as Act II. Fans of the documentaries (There are two, the famous one and a follow-up.) are so devoted to the memory of this formidable mother-daughter duo that they can’t wait for the second half of the musical when the dialogue mirrors the film. Multiple gasps could be heard when Leigh Barrett enters in Act II looking exactly like “Little Edie” in the documentary.
It helps immensely to know the real Beales from the documentary if you are going to see the musical, or at least to be conversant with the brouhaha which erupted when reporters discovered that Jackie Kennedy’s relatives were living in squalor. Doug Wright’s clever book reveals the grandeur that was “Grey Gardens” in the 40s, the twenty-eight room mansion in the Hamptons where Edith Bouvier Beale hosted party after fashionable party. Then Wright pulls the rug out from under Edith and daughter, Edie, when the money and the friends run out. The “Grey Gardens” of 1973 is overrun with cats, raccoons and abject poverty.
Director Spiro Veloudos makes Act I bristle with frenetic energy and activity, in direct contrast to the more somber second half. Leigh Barrett, as mother Beale in the first half, chews up the scenery as well as her daughter (the lovely Aimee Doherty as the heartbroken, overpowered “Little Edie”). Then she returns in Act II as daughter to Sarah deLima’s bedridden mother Beale, still capable, even though she’s frail and incapacitated, of bossing her fifty-three year old daughter about. The two become co-dependent, just as mother wanted from the start. Your heart goes out to “Little Edie” because she never got what she wanted.
One of the things she desperately desired was marriage and in Act I she almost gets it, in the person of R. Patrick Ryan as Joe Kennedy, Jr., until mother sabotages the romance. Ryan returns as the cherished errand boy who manages to penetrate their seclusion in Act II. Will McGarrahan is mother’s doting protégé in better times and Dick Santos, as disapproving grandfather, gets to sing the cheeky “Marry Well.” The songs (by Scott Frankel and Michael Korte) are delightful, sounding like Noel Coward ditties of the day. The music trips along gracefully under Jonathan Goldberg’s baton.