Albert and David Maysles made history in 1975 with their documentary Grey Gardens. The film detailed the everyday lives of two reclusive, formerly upper crust women –mother and daughter both named Edith Beale. The two women lived in poverty in a decrepit mansion, with no running water, that they shared with a legion of cats and raccoons in a wealthy neighborhood in East Hampton, New York. The shocker was that they were relatives of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy and her sister Princess Lee Radziwill.
In 2009 HBO did a TV movie version winning an Emmy Award for Jessica Lange and SAG and Golden Globe Awards for Drew Barrymore. In 2006 a musical version of the story, with a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, opened on Broadway and won Tony Awards for its leading ladies Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson. Now the musical Grey Gardens has finally reached Los Angeles thanks to the Center Theatre Group. The show is definitely worth seeing for its two leading ladies, Rachel York and Betty Buckley.
The documentary is a strange choice as source material for a musical. As with the HBO film, playwright Wright has written a first act set three decades before the period of the documentary. The time is July, 1941 and the scene is the Beale mansion in East Hampton. The occasion is the engagement party of Little Edie (Sarah Hunt) to Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (Josh Young). The belle of the ball however is Big Edie (York) who has planned the whole party, including her performing a program of at least nine songs with her live in accompanist, the heavy drinking George Gould Strong (Bryan Batt). Little Edie prevails on her mother to tone down her involvement and not wreck another chance of her escaping the Hamptons. It’s not to be as her mother tells Joe how Edie got her nickname of “Body Beautiful Beale.” The audience gets a lot of laughs from the tiny tots (Katie Silverman and Peyton Ella) as the young Jackie and Lee Bouvier, knowing the women they will grow up to be.
The second act is virtually a recreation of the documentary (and features an amazing scenic design by Jeff Cowie) with a camera crew filming the two very odd recluses and their bitter and constant tug of war for affection and the spotlight. Unfortunately the four legged feline inhabitants are heard but never seen. The oddness of the story has in turn caused the songwriters to create some odd songs, especially for the second act. Many are dissonant and unmelodic, very show specific. You won’t come out humming any of these tunes. But they have also created some big production numbers that just don’t work in what really should be a two-character act. The production numbers are just fine in the first act which at times plays like a 1940s screwball comedy, but in the second act they are just jarring and mood-wrecking.
Michael Wilson’s direction is not very lively or focused making the show seem a lot longer than it is. Rachel York runs the gamut of emotions from the domineering mother in the first act to the rebellious and strange daughter in the second. Betty Buckley lands her laughs as the cantankerous Edie and her two numbers—“The Cake I Had” and “Jerry Likes My Corn” elicit cheers from the faithful.
Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles. Ends Aug. 14. 213-972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org