BWW Review: Buckley and York Bring an Emotionally Engaging West Coast premiere ‘Grey Gardens’ to the Ahmanson

By Don Grigware
Broadway World
July 14, 2016

Grey Gardens/book by Doug Wright/music by Scott Frankel/lyrics by Michael Korie/directed by Michael Wilson/musical director: Kevin Stites/Ahmanson Theatre/through August 14

True-to-life eccentrics tend to make the most riveting dramatic/comedic characters. In 1975 Albert and David Maysles produced an award-winning documentary called Grey Gardens about Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie), aunt and cousin respectively of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The film was eventually rated among the top 10 greatest documentaries of all time, and provided the basis for a the musical of the same name, produced off and on Broadway in 2006.

The musical, with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, shows the socialite family in its heyday in East Hampton, New York in Act One. Act Two is their demise into total poverty. The estate inhabited by the reclusive mother and daughter combo was condemned by the board of health, and the two women gained notoriety for their delusional, certifiable behavior. Now in its West Coast premiere at the Ahmanson through August 14, Grey Gardens explores the fiercely fiery relationship between the two Edies, offering Betty Buckley (older Big Edie) and Rachel York (younger Big Edie/Little Edie) their most cherished roles to date.

In this new version mounted back East in 2015, a prologue begins with the decrepit house in 1973 and then flashes back to 1941 when Big Edie was a prominent singer and Little Edie was engaged to Joseph Kennedy Jr (Josh Young). Father J.V. “Major” Bouvier (Simon Jones) deplores Edith’s (Rachel York) theatrics calling her an “actress without a stage”. Her own husband, a prominent financier is leaving her for a younger woman, so, afraid of losing her daughter as well, she casually throws out a piece of scandal about young Edie (Sarah Hunt), who once swam and ran naked through a crowd. “Scandal turned triumphant” is the way she describes it, but to Little Edie’s straight-laced Joe Kennedy, this is much too much to bear and he calls off the engagement on the spot. Little Edie blames her mother for ruining her chances to marry and runs off to New York.

Act Two picks up in 1973 again, with cameras rolling around the house, filming the famous documentary. Little Edie (Rachel York), now in her fifties, and Big Edie (Betty Buckley), in her seventies, are miserable codependents. The play, however, is not without a brutal, almost prophetic sense of humor. Little Edie lives in a dream world, parading her eclectic fashion – with her skirt wrapped around her head like a babushka and tied under the chin “The Revolutionary Costume for Today!” – and feeding the 52 cats and raccoons that inhabit the filthy house. Big Edie sleeps in an insect-infested bed, cooks corn on a hotplate on a nearby bed stand, and listens to worn out records that she recorded 40 years earlier. The conditions are deplorable. Butler Brooks from the old days (Davon Williams) helps the ladies grow a vegetable garden, and a young fellow named Jerry (Josh Young), out of sympathy, runs errands and keeps Big Edie company. Did Big Edie ruin Little Edie’s chances or was Little Edie too insecure to stay away and make it on her own? Whatever the reason, in the end, she stays, remaining loyal to her mother. Frankel and Korie’s “Another Winter in a Summer Town”expresses the intense sadness for them both.

Under Michael Wilson’s even direction, both actresses give astounding performances. York does her best work in Act Two as Little Edie. With just an empty, faraway glance or the resigned tone of her voice “Coming, mother darling” – there is no exaggeration present – she nails the bitter loneliness. Buckley too, brilliantly conveys a helplessness from moment to moment that is completely without affectation. Her comedic turn with “The Cake I Had” is sheer delight. Praise to the entire cast with special nods to Hunt as the young Edie in Act One, to Josh Young so wonderful as Kennedy in Act One and then as the sympathetic Jerry in Act Two. I couldn’t help but think of Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” when Buckley sings “Jerry Likes My Corn”. Their attachment is precious. Kudos as well to Bryan Batt who deliciously plays the very gay George Gould Strong, Big Edie’s accompanist/friend/soul mate in Act One.

Jeff Cowie’s set design of the house’s two distinct faces is superb, as are Ilona Somogyi’s period costumes. Frankel and Korie’s score has a faint touch of Sondheim with its vivid painting of emotions and includes new songs written for this new 2015 mounting. As with most character-driven musicals, the songs appropriately move the story forward. Doug Wright’s book is sensational, smoothly connecting the two worlds of 1941 and 1973.

In Grey Gardens, I found myself transported into the past, into a world filled with longing and deep sorrow. Many of you have or had a mother who wouldn’t release the apron strings. And as much as you wanted to break loose, you didn’t. Past or present, rich or poor, family ties universally bind.