Grey Gardens charms and confounds
If you’ve never seen the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, then open a new tab in your browser and add it to your Netflix queue. It’s schadenfreude at its most bizarre. Not only is it a cult-classic must-see for any gay person, it’s also recommended viewing before watching the recent Drew Barrymore-Jessica Lange HBO movie or the musical version on-stage now at WaterTower Theatre. Because only after you see the real Edith Bouvier Beale and "Little" Edie Bouvier Beale can you appreciate just how good the performances are in this fascinating local production.
The story focuses on the most bizarre love-hate relationship of a mother-daughter team since Joan and Christina Crawford. In the documentary, we get a candid glimpse into the Beales’ post-socialite lives of squalor in their run-down East Hamptons estate, Grey Gardens, where raccoons and cats have overrun the property and the two women appear to have gone more than a little batty, to put it very politely. That Little Edie was Jackie Kennedy’s first cousin is what gave the documentary its tabloid-worthy twist that compelled audiences back then and still today, while a nation asks how American royalty could fall so far. How did they get to this state of filth? What were their lives like before? Was it Big Edie holding her daughter back or vice versa?
All those questions are answered in this, the Broadway musical version of Grey Gardens, where the entire first act is devoted to their fabulous years of glamour, wealth and sophistication. Act II focuses on the material from the documentary. And all of it with music.
With a story from gay playwright (and Pulitzer Prize winner!) Doug Wright, it’s like finally seeing all the pieces of an intricate puzzle fall into place. Questions are answered, but more importantly, we feel more empathy for the two women having seen how far from grace they’ve fallen and how tragically they’ve been abandoned by their family. Given the current economic circumstances, this has even more resonance because I think we all believe at times that any of us could be one bad decision or horrible twist of fate away from eating cat food and fighting off fleas.
The musical numbers with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie are good, but they lack the hooks and melodies to be Broadway show tunes in the most classic sense. That is, they move the plot along fine, but they come across as more filler that’s keeping us from the scenes with spoken dialogue. I think the whole production would have played better simply as Wright could present it rather than muddy it up with merely adequate songs. But I must admit, "Jerry Likes My Corn" gets props for its title alone.
But the musical version is what WaterTower has to work with and they do a fantastic job of staging it. I’m always amazed at the scale and grandeur of the sets at this small local theater. Here, Grey Gardens (the home) feels far grander than the multi-million-dollar production design of Mary Poppins over at Fair Park. And that’s no small feat.
With direction from Terry Martin, the performances of the actors in the starring roles are what propel this show into an alternate theatrical experience that made me at times forget that I wasn’t in a small Broadway venue rather than beneath a water tower in Addison, Texas. This triumph is mostly due to a gutsy turn by Diana Sheehan, who portrays Big Edie in Act I and adult Little Edie in Act II. The accent, the mannerisms, the awkwardness— all eerily spot-on in a completely fearless portrayal. Her singing voice is lovely and her ability to connect with the material, the actors and the audience are a joy to watch.
Pam Dougherty as the second-act Big Edie is also a pleasure as she brings nuance to the mostly bed-ridden matriarch. Really, the entire ensemble is terrific, but it’s got to suck to be in a show like this with such intriguing title characters because the spotlight is really reserved for the mother and daughter.
And if I understand the real Edies from the documentary, the TV movie and the musical, I doubt if they’d want it any other way.
Through October 25 at WaterTower Theatre
15650 Addison Rd • Addison, TX 75001-3285 • (972) 450-6220 • www.watertowertheatre.org