Let us again sing the praises of a genuine star turn - a performance so galvanizing that it jump-starts an entire production.
The performer in question is the astonishing Christine Ebersole, who in the course of two acts portrays a pair of unusual ladies - Edith Bouvier Bealeand her daughter, "Little" Edie Beale, the eccentric aunt and the equally strange cousin of Jacqueline Onassis.
The musical is called "Grey Gardens," and Ebersole was cheered when the show opened last March at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons. If anything, her work is even better at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre, where the production arrived Thursday. It's richer and deeper, layered with a heartbreaking sense of loss that could have been obscured by the comic, often hilariously loopy antics of these reclusive women.
At first glance, the Beales, mother and daughter, are unlikely subjects for musical theater. The show, a blending of fact and fiction, is based on the 1975 film documentary made by the Maysles brothers, David and Albert, about the ladies and their lives in a decrepit, decaying Long Island mansion called Grey Gardens.
There was still work to be done when the show, which has a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, premiered last March. The first act, set in 1941, was too long - a faux Cole Porter-like reimagining of the Beales' life before everything fell apart.
Now the act is tighter, more focused, with several numbers deleted and a couple new, marginally better ones added. In Act 1, Ebersole is the mother, a society lady with vocal aspirations and a penchant for dominating her daughter, played by the lovely Erin Davie, a new addition to the cast.
The household is abuzz at Edle's engagement to Joseph Kennedy Jr. (yes, those Kennedys), portrayed with earnest affability by Matt Cavenaugh. It's also being tom apart by the bickering between mother and daughter and the absence of a distant, errant Wall Street father.
Wright, author of the Tony-winning "I Am My Own Wife," nicely sets up the conflict between the two women, foreshadowing the collapse of their lives in the second act. After intermission, 30 years have gone by, with Edith, now played by Mary Louise Wilson, and "Little" Edie (Ebersole at her most triumphant), more dependent than ever on each other.
Wilson gives a masterful performance, too. She's a cranky, comic delight, able to hold her own with the formidable Ebersole, who pretty much wraps up the evening with her show-stopping number that opens Act 2.
Called "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," the song - in which she describes her unusual apparel - encapsulates "Little" Edie's delightfully off-kilter personality. And Ebersole, dressed in a tight chocolate-brown outfit and black snood, delivers it with enormous conviction.
The score by Frankel and Korie then becomes more interesting, moving away from the pastiche numbers that fill the musical's first half. For example, there's the haunting "Another Winter in a Summer Town," as Edie recognizes time is passing and she is trapped by staying, season after season, with her mother.
Director Michael Greif has pruned "Grey Gardens" effectively, so the warfare between the two ladies is never far from the show's surface.
It doesn't leave much room for the other characters to develop, but the urbane John McMartin makes an impression as grandfather J.V. "Major" Bouvier as does Bob Stillman as the older Edie's acerbic, alcoholic piano accompanist.
And there even is strong support from the girls playing Edith's two young nieces, Jacqueline (Sarah Hyland) and Lee (Kelsey Fowler) Bouvier, and Michael Potts as a loyal servant.
Designer Allen Moyer's settings are studies in contrasts - the fantasy world of an opulent summer home in Act 1, juxtaposed with the squalor of the second act. And William Ivey Long's costumes are exemplary - perfect period clothing and then the bizarre get-ups of those later years.
"You lived. I never lived," a defiant Edie says to her mother at the beginning of "Grey Gardens" - before the show flashes back to the 1940s. That may be true. But in Ebersole's glorious performance, the woman truly comes alive on stage.
Edie Bouvier Beale and her mother, Edith, have finally made it to Broadway - and what a welcome addition they are. That their big break comes long after these world-class eccentrics were alive to bask in stardom is just one of the twisted, tender ironies of their pop-culture infamy.
"Grey Gardens," the musical about the bizarre cousin and aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, has taken over the Walter Kerr Theatre as if to the manor born. This audacious interpolation of the 1975 cult-hit documentary has transferred from Playwrights Horizons with all of its original pleasures and several significant new ones.
When the show opened Off-Broadway in March, Michael Greif's incisively high-camp production was celebrated for two thoroughly transfixing performances by Christine Ebersole: in the first act, as socialite Edith in her prime in 1941, and after intermission as middle-aged daughter "Little" Edie in flea-bitten defiance in 1973.
Doug Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "I Am My Own Wife" had sculpted a book that attempted to trace the two women's devolution from East Hampton aristocrats to the dysfunctional frights that filmmakers Albert and David Maysles found three decades later at the women's condemned Grey Gardens mansion.
Wright's attitude toward the women has always been both affectionate and creepy. But the script lacked emotional coherence and seemed more like two meticulously produced one-acts with amusing new takes on old-style songs. Could we really believe that Edith and Edie, however fierce their desire to be bohemians in a white-glove world, turned into recluses who thrived in a 28- room garbage dump with 52 cats, marauding raccoons and eviction threats from the Suffolk County Board of Health?
The improvements start with an expanded prologue that asks, in tabloid voice-over, "How could American royalty fall so far, so fast?" Young "Little" Edie has been recast with Erin Davie, who not only looks like a younger Ebersole but also brings a febrile quality that suggests she could unravel without much encouragement.
Composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie have rearranged a few of their stylish pastiche songs, adding at least one and removing a few others to make the first act almost as entertaining as the second. The first act is done as a 1940s musical, complete with fox trots and marches. It is set on the day of the party celebrating young Edie's putative engagement to Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. The second half is more like a new-old Sondheim musical, if the dark master of uneven phrase lengths and internal rhymes had ever toyed with "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"
This unapologetic contribution to crazy-old-lady literature begins in the parlor of the mansion, designed like a live-in Wedgwood dinner service by Allen Moyer. Big Edie (Ebersole), a frustrated singer, controlling mother and neglected wife, is at the piano with her fey, live-in accompanist (Bob Stillman), preparing to entertain the guests and upstage her daughter.
In the original production, Edith's sabotage of her child's romance seemed like pure selfishness. Now we understand that she is also acting in Edie's interest: scaring off the proper, politically ambitious young Kennedy because she wants to save her high-spirited, Broadway-dreaming daughter from her own stifling fate.
John McMartin, that old smoothie, is both dashing and destructive as Edith's conservative father. Delightful young Sarah Hyland and Kelsey Fowler watch and mimic the grown-ups as Jackie Bouvier and her sister, Lee.
After intermission, we are smack in the riveting nightmare world of the Maysles' documentary. The wonderful Mary-Louise Wilson, as the elderly Edith, looks like a dried-apple doll and shrieks gleefully that, at least, she "ate the cake I had." To her failed child, she crows, "Is it my fault that your cake fell flat/that you're unmarried, bald and fat?" She flirtatiously cooks for Jerry (Matt Cavenaugh, who is also persuasively priggish as Joe Kennedy), a devoted stray teen in with flea collars on his pant cuffs.
Ghosts from the first act appear on the old staircase, and sing an eerie, inspirational Norman Vincent Peale song about "choosing to be happy."
But all eyes come back to Little Edie, a fast-talking, proud loser with a fashion eye for girdles, leopard-print, safety pins, and turbans made of sweaters - grandly designed by William Ivey Long. Ebersole, who finds more voices in her head than most of us have friends shreds our hearts with the lament "Another Winter in a Summer Town." Lest she get bathetic she is proudly ridiculous in a harrowingly uncoordinated marching song.
"All I needed was an audience," she tells Jerry. She has one now.
In "Grey Gardens," Christine Ebersole delivers a bona fide star turn that is awesome, amazing and astonishing - and that's just the A's.
The musical, which opened last night, is inspired by and named after the 1975 documentary about Jackie Onassis' eccentric cousins, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter "Little" Edie Beale, who lived in a filthy, flea-infested Hamptons mansion.
Book writer Doug Wright, lyricist Michael Korie and composer Scott Frankel have turned that odd grist into a funny and poignant riches-to-rags story ("based," according to a Playbill note, "on both fact and fiction") that boldly trips through time and musical motifs.
Act I is set in 1941. It imagines Little Edie's preengagement party - an event that never happened. Ebersole plays Edith, a socialite and wanna-be singer in a shaky marriage who is also at odds with her WASPy father (John McMartin) and daughter (Erin Davie, who is fantastic in her Broadway debut). Edith's lone ally is her gay accompanist, Gould (a sterling Bob Stillman). Edith's vanity and competitiveness conspire to make her sabotage young Edie's plans to marry Joe Kennedy Jr. (Matt Cavenaugh), driving a wedge between the women.
Act II jumps to 1973, and it faithfully follows the documentary. The once-glorious home Grey Gardens is a "28-room litter box," and its residents are in just as rough shape. Ebersole now plays the strange, middle-aged Little Edie. Mary Louise Wilson plays Edith, the needy and needling ancient mother. She makes you laugh, wince and weep in her supporting role.
Since the show's run at Playwrights Horizons this year, director Michael Greif has added a prologue set in 1973, seemingly to bridge the gap between the look, mood and music of Acts I (a drawing-room melodrama), and II (a nutty freak show). It doesn't really succeed. The pretty, high-strung Little Edie in the first half bears little resemblance to the bizarre woman she becomes.
That doesn't diminish the accomplishments of Korie and Frankel, who have written a glorious score. The show's final number, "Another Winter in a Summer Town," is also one of the finest. Raw and ravishing, it vividly expresses where Little Edie has been and where she's going.
The number provides one of many high points for Ebersole, who sings and acts with crystal clarity and draws from a deep well of emotion. She is always 100% in control. Ebersole already has a Tony, but this performance catapults her high into the Broadway heavens. She won't be coming down to earth for a long while. And after you see her in "Grey Gardens," neither will you.
At the end of "Grey Gardens," Christine Ebersole looks hunched and haunted, gazing at a bleak future. It's a wondrous moment, almost an epiphany - but one enshrined in a musical of mixed and possibly limited interest.
The musical that opened last night at the Walter Kerr - after last season's sold-out off-Broadway run – was inspired by the celebrated Maysles brothers' film of the reclusive Bouvier/Beales, aunt and cousin to Jackie Kennedy Onassis, who lived out their poverty-stricken days In the magnificent squalor of a decaying 28-room East Hampton mansion.
For the show, book writer Doug Wright has ingeniously expanded the story, providing it with an imaginatively truthful prequel set in 1941. This clever mix of fact and fancy, unlike the documentary, first shows the Bouvier clan in all its heady, if doomed, glory.
Wright's smart book stitches together a most intriguing storyline, which adroitly gives answers before it asks questions.
Yet for all its narrative interest, it's still a musical that sets out with one grave, even deadly, disadvantage. Its music.
This derivative score, by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), sounds like a secondhand, second-rate pastiche.
There's a touch of Cole Porter here, more than a whiff of Noel Coward there, a tad of Irving Berlin, even Rudolf Friml or George M. Cohan, and, of course, Stephen Sondheim. If there's anyone I've left out, rest assured Frankel and Korie haven't.
The show has been considerably revised since the off-Broadway version at Playwrights Horizons and its subsequent cast recording, to little avail.
On the plus side, there's still the suave staging by Michael Greif, the stylishly correct costumes by William Ivey Long and a few elegant and eloquent performances from the veteran John McMartin, Michael Potts and Bob Stillman.
And then there's Ebersole, who brings off a dazzling histrionic double. Not only does she inhabit, with eerie possessiveness, Jackie O's cousin, the middle-age "Little" Edie Beale, but in the 1941 throwback she plays her own mother, Edith Bouvier Beale, with the unerring flamboyance of a musical-comedy flapper.
Flash-forward to 1973, and that same mother, the now truculent but undimmed Edith, is in the sure hands of Mary Louise Wilson, who endows cranky geriatrics with a perky dignity.
Both Ebersole and Wilson share the same diva flair, but have to work like graceful demons to illuminate the long shadows and deep shallows of those aptly named "Grey Gardens."
It's a goodish musical, but not quite goodish enough - it first overdoses on cute nostalgia, but finally it's the score that does it in. You can't have a musical without the music.
Not exactly a phrase that gleams with Shakespearean eloquence, is it? But once you've heard Christine Ebersole sing it - and believe me, this is an experience no passionate theatergoer should miss - "da-da-dada-dum" is guaranteed to enter your personal memory bank of cherished quotations, the kind you summon when you're feeling down and thwarted and need to smile.
These inspirational syllables are delivered at the beginning of the second act of "Grey Gardens," the musical that opened last night like a full-blown, petal-dropping peony at the Walter Kerr Theater, after an Off Broadway run earlier this year at Playwrights Horizons. And when Ms. Ebersole, portraying the middle-aged, time-warped debutante called Little Edie Beale, delivers her das and dums, any doubts that this show belongs on Broadway are sent packing.
Ms. Ebersole at this point is wearing clothes that suggest her character's approach to getting dressed is rolling in a laundry basket and seeing what sticks. She sings in defense of her sartorial style, which she describes with some vigor as "the revolutionary costume for today."
But it's the throwaway "da-da-da-da-dum," which ends each verse in a nasal postscript, that instantly identifies Little Edie as a complex character, with a timid girl's uncertainty and distractibility beneath the exhibitionist's bravado. As small a musical moment as it is, it wraps itself intimately around the audience, offering a passport into one woman's mind.
That Little Edie does indeed belong on big Broadway did not feel like a sure proposition when it was announced that the show would be transferring. Adapted from the 1975 Maysles brothers' documentary of the same title - which portrayed Little Edie and her octogenarian mother, cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, living in reclusive, Collyer-brothers-like squalor in East Hamptons the Off Broadway production had the feverish, sulfuric air of a work pitched at those who revel in watching glamorous battling women gone grotesquely to seed.
But while "Grey Gardens" - adapted by Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), and directed by Michael Greif - was as crammed with the potential for camp as a Maria Montez film festival, there was always a sense of something humane and delicate beneath the moth-eaten drag.
The faults of "Grey Gardens" remain the same on Broadway, including an entire first act that never really takes flight, but they seem smaller. In cutting some songs and introducing new ones, and in rewriting and rearranging some of the script, the creative team has expanded the warmer empathy that could always be detected beneath all the fancy dropped names and nudging references to the fates of famous characters. The focus is now more cleanly on an unending, paralyzingly ambivalent struggle between a mother and a daughter.
The scaling up of Allen Moyer's set, which portrays the Beale homestead in its days of both glory and decrepitude, dilutes the claustrophobic prurience of the Off Broadway production. (Peter Kaczorowski's lighting and Wendall K. Harrington's projection design also assume greater impact in conjuring interior landscapes.) Let loose on the wide-open spaces of a Broadway stage, Little Edie and her mother have a chance to grow to near heroic proportions. Paradoxically, they also feel more accessibly human.
The first act is still too long for its function as an explanatory preface to the second. The self-defined aesthete and society matron Edith Bouvier Beale (Ms. Ebersole) is giving a party to announce the engagement of her daughter, Little Edie (Erin Davie), to Joseph Kennedy Jr. (Matt Cavenaugh).
Also on hand are Mrs. Beale's beloved accompanist and pet homosexual, George Gould Strong (Bob Stillman); her disapproving, old-guard father, J. V. Bouvier (that most solid of pros, John McMaltin); Brooks, the family retainer (Michael Potts); and two little visiting cousins named Jackie (Sarah Hyland) and Lee (Kelsey Fowler). Soap operaish complications and clashes of wills, reminiscent of high-society period dramas like "Dinner at Eight," wreck both the party and Little Edie's matrimonial prospects.
The double-edged interdependency of the two Edies is established in psychological broad strokes that, while hardly subtle, neatly set up the conflicts of the act to come. Ms. Davie brings a welcome beleaguered feistiness to her role. But though more credible than Sara Gettelfinger, who created the part Off Broadway, she mostly registers as a pretty cipher in search of a defining shape. It is inconceivable that she could grow up to be the Little Edie of the second act.
Still, pity the young actress who has to hold her own against Ms. Ebersole, who turns the first act into a personal tour de force. Dressed in the kind of at-home morning wear that wouldn't look out place in a ballroom (the ubiquitous William Ivey Long did the costumes), Ms. Ebersole works her way through a catalog of period-pastiche numbers (including a hilarious minstrel-show paean to hominy grits) in a coloratura that captures exactly both long-gone musical genres and the particular egotism of the woman singing them.
It is the stunted filial product of such egotism who steps to the edge of the stage at the beginning of the second act. Here, mind-bogglingly, is Ms. Ebersole again, playing her own daughter. The shining soprano has been pinched into stridency by Long Island lockjaw. But every so often a nightingale emerges, fleetingly and forlornly, from within the raven's harshness.
The second act of "Grey Gardens" hews closely to the documentary, as Ms. Ebersole and Ms. Wilson re-create squabbles and reminiscences enacted by their real-life prototypes, occasionally joined by Jerry, the sweet-natured young neighborhood slacker who drops by with groceries (Mr. Cavenaugh again, and first-rate).
The Beale cultists regard such scenes as sacred ritual. The rest of us are free to appreciate the fine-grained psychological portraiture that the actresses provide via song, lending shading and substance that Mr. Frankel's and Mr. Korie's numbers don't necessarily possess on their own.
Ms. Wilson casually turns "The Cake I Had" into a stinging study of the kind of willfully positive denial that makes old age bearable. And her song to Jerry about the corn she cooks on a hot plate becomes a strangely affecting ode to small pleasures and the vestiges of one woman's misplaced maternal instincts.
The wit, exact detail and, above all, compassion with which Ms. Ebersole infuses each of her numbers as Little Edie are ravishing. Even dancing like a drunken U.S.O. entertainer from World War II, flapping flags as if they were flyswatters, this Edie is never merely ridiculous. And when her voice goes pure and girlish for the show's most conventionally pretty numbers, she becomes the frightened, resentful and perversely hopeful child that persists in everyone, longing for parental approval and the sanctuary of a real home.
There is another phrase, by the way, in addition to the immortal "da-da-da-da-dum," that I can't get out of my head. This one is two words, "Oh, God," and Ms. Ebersole sings them in her climactic number, "Another Winter in a Summer Town," with a layering of despair, rebellion and surrender that becomes a heartbreaking epitaph for an entire life. Watching this performance is the best argument I can think of for the survival of the American musical.
As "Little" Edie Beale observes in "Grey Gardens," "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present." When this emotionally trenchant musical premiered to wide praise Off Broadway last season, one criticism was that past and present were too separate. While the show's creative team has made extensive changes in the move to Broadway, its most illuminating work has been to provide deepened context for this spellbinding account of fallen American royalty, connecting the dots in the subjects' slippage from high society to its forlorn fringes.
The show's most buzzed-about aspect has been star Christine Ebersole in a staggering dual-role performance sure to become a new benchmark for musical-theater excellence. Scaling heights of droll hilarity only to plumb searing emotional depths, capturing Edie's physical mannerisms and Long Island drawl with uncanny exactitude and finding poignant universality in the most bizarre of eccentrics, this miraculous turn deserves every superlative thrown its way.
But in Michael Greif's fine production, "Grey Gardens" is much more than a tour-de-force performance.
Broadway has been flooded with screen-to-stage adaptations in recent years, with more to come this season. While most shows take a primarily illustrative approach as they translate well-known characters and situations from one medium to the next, Doug Wright's work adapting David and Albert Maysles' cult 1975 documentary is far more probing and interpretive -- even more so now than when the show played its sellout extended run at Playwrights Horizons last spring.
In less adventurous hands, "Grey Gardens" might merely have been a quirky musical about crazy cat ladies -- a singing, dancing slice of Robert Aldrich-style modern gothic. But Wright and his collaborators Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) have taken their cue from the Maysles brothers in portraying their multifaceted subjects with depth and dignity. Their show is a haunting account of lives derailed, a textured depiction of the warring, often simultaneous desires to wound and heal that characterize mother-daughter relationships, and a witty celebration of two defiantly maverick personalities.
Its subjects are Edie and her mother, Edith Bouvier Beale --respectively cousin and aunt to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis --whose reclusion in a dilapidated East Hampton mansion surrounded by an overgrown privet jungle and crawling with cats, raccoons and fleas was chronicled in the cinema verite classic.
Faithfully staging key scenes laced with generous swathes of the Beales' more quotable dialogue, the show brings the fascinating Beckettian torpor of the film to life in act two and in a now-expanded prologue (both set in 1973), while exploring the root of the women's self-imposed exile and Edie's functioning madness in a first act that traces a single day in 1941.
That day is the occasion of a party celebrating the engagement of Edie (Erin Davie) to Joseph Kennedy Jr. (Matt Cavenaugh). As Edie's cousins Jackie (Sarah Hyland) and Lee (Kelsey Fowler) look on, her plans unravel, transforming her from a woman possibly headed for the White House alongside a then-rising political star to a perpetual teenager, locked in the shadow of her overbearing mother, Edith (Ebersole).
Wright has streamlined the action here to focus more tightly on the disintegration of Edie's hopes and dreams. Broadway newcomer Davie takes over from Sara Gettelfinger, who originated the role, and her lovely, fragile performance enhances the foreshadowing by hinting quietly at the unhinged woman Edie is to become. Cavenaugh now more clearly etches the conflict between Joe's romantic involvement, his political ambitions and social conservatism, while John McMartin has effectively heightened the severity of Edith's father, "Major" Bouvier, whose cruel dressing down of his bohemian daughter precipitates the encroaching disaster.
What the first act does exceptionally well now is sketch in the subtly stifling conditions against which these women rebelled.
As Allen Moyer's inventive set morphs from sleek elegance to splintery squalor in act two, Ebersole steps into the role of 56-year-old Edie and the wonderful Mary Louise Wilson takes over as the aged Edith. As mother and daughter act out the frictions of a parent both competitive and protective and a child struggling to be her own person, the bickering provides an entertaining forestory for the underlying, steadily amplified tragedy of Edie's psychological and emotional entrapment.
While that aspect is what most audiences will take away from the show, Wright's achievement in turning the women's status as social pariahs into a weird kind of triumph should be recognized. "There's a lot to be said for living alone," observes Edith. "You get to be a real individual."
Ebersole and Wilson are marvelous at nailing the originality, authenticity and independence of these pre-feminist women. "Staunch women, we just don't weaken," sings Edie in the uproarious "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," establishing her both as unconventional style maven and political free-thinker ("The full-length velvet glove hides the fist").
Of the new songs added for Broadway, best is McMartin's "Marry Well," which conveys the pressures of social conditioning far better than the now-ditched "Being Bouvier" and "Tomorrow's Women." New opener "The Girl Who Has Everything" also functions well, poignantly drawing the pinnacle from which Edie will tumble.
However, the high points remain unchallenged: Ebersole's "Revolutionary Costume" and beautiful act-one closer "Will You?"; Wilson's "Jerry Likes My Corn," a seemingly whimsical song that spins the most unlikely snatch of dialogue into a complex piece of character- and conflict-building; Ebersole's schizoid "Around the World," which lurches grippingly between bitter accusation and the sad imprisonment of memory; and her heartbreaking closing number, "Another Winter in a Summer Town." Performed on the first press night by Ebersole with tears streaming down her face, that song now segues into a superbly reworked final scene of piercing melancholy.
In a Broadway arena that can be unaccommodating for "serious" musicals, "Grey Gardens" is as boldly odd, original and beguiling as its subjects.