Commanding Performances Shine in ‘Grey Gardens:’ The Musical at Bay Street

By Dawn Watson

Sag Harbor

August 11, 2015

Rarely does an adaptation live up to the original story on which it’s based. But “Grey Gardens: The Musical,” now staging at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, does that and much, much more.

This statement is not meant as a slight to the iconic 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, but rather a sign of deep and profound respect for the Bay Street production, which is incredible. “Grey Gardens,” starring Betty Buckley and Rachel York, is quite literally some of the best hours I have ever spent in the theater.

Directed here on the East End by Michael Wilson, the brilliant stage play was written by Doug Wright, with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. The Bay Street production stars Tony Award-winner Ms. Buckley as Edith Bouvier Beale and Drama Desk Award-winner Ms. York as both a younger version of “Big Edie” in Act One of the play, and later as the adult version of her daughter, “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale, in Act Two. The show also stars Howard McGillin, Gracie Beardsley, Matt Doyle, James Harkness, Sarah Hunt, Simon Jones and Dakota Quackenbush.

Ms. Buckley, a commanding actor with stage presence to spare, is simply marvelous as Big Edie. And Ms. York, who is in practically every scene of the show, is absolutely astounding, astonishing and amazing. I could go on and on with the superlatives and still not communicate the power of her performance.

For those not familiar with the story of the Beales—relatives of Southampton-born Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, née Bouvier—who lived in squalor for decades at 3 West End Road in the Georgica Pond neighborhood of East Hampton—“Grey Gardens” will be an absolute revelation. And the fans who already cherish the story (such as this reviewer) will leave the theater on a high that will most likely last for days. I still have not come down from mine. Nor have I been able to refrain from speaking in the stylized, upper-crusty manner of Little Edie, whose famously entertaining quips “absolutely pulverized” me.

There’s a reason that this show has been selling out, and should continue to do so during its entire run. It’s so true to the documentary, but better, with all the good parts front and center in the dialog and action. And then there’s the added bonus of the backstory not contained in the film, plus the spot-on costumes, perfect set, and top-quality production values. And, of course, there’s the virtuoso performances.

Saying that the acting in this production is a tour de force is almost underselling it. Fully committed to their characters in a way that is seldom witnessed on stage—even by the very best of the best—these two powerhouses of Buckley and York are perfectly matched and playing to their considerable strengths.

Starring roles are not created in a vacuum, but come to a special kind of transcendent light when nurtured and allowed to exist within a framework built by a strong supporting cast. The ensemble members of “Grey Gardens” more than pull their weight.

p>Mr. McGillin is sassy, snappy and droll as George Gould Strong. Ms. Hunt, who has a beautiful voice, is mesmerizing as Young Little Edie. Mr. Jones entertainingly lives up to his impressive real-life character, Major Bouvier. Mr. Doyle is equally convincing and entertaining as young Joe Kennedy and Jerry the teenaged handyman. Mr. Harkness plays Brooks with a dignity and grace that is wonderfully watchable. And the misses Beardsley and Quackenbush are deliciously delightful as young Jackie and Lee Bouvier.

“Grey Gardens” is one of those rare theatrical events that should not be missed. To sum up this magical musical, I’ll use the true words of the eminently quotable Edies. Because honestly, who could do it better?

“Everything a person could want; you’ve got it right here” Big Edie tells her daughter of Grey Gardens. That’s pretty much exactly what I’d say about this production at Bay Street. But first, I’d stand at the entrance of the theater waving a miniature American flag, wearing a chic handmade turban, greeting the audience in my best Little Edie as they filed in to take their seats.

“Here comes the good part,” I’d say.