‘Grey Gardens’ at the Ahmanson

By Travis Michael Holder
Arts in LA
July 14, 2016

What becomes a legend most? A musty-smelling old Blackglama mink coat was probably being devoured by moths in the back of Edith Bouvier Beale’s dilapidated closet. But in the case of the musical adaptation of the 1975 documentary GREY GARDENS, nothing could be more becoming than to have Beale portrayed by one of Broadway’s most enduring living legends, the inimitable Betty Buckley. Although the role is supporting, not surfacing fully until after intermission, anyone would be hard-pressed to come away from the Ahmanson’s smartly packaged revival of the musical without Buckley’s name foremost on their lips.

The tour-de-force performance by Rachel York as Edith’s certifiable daughter “Little” Edie is also high on the list of becoming things about this production. York is equally spectacular, picking up every bizarre peculiarity, nervous tick, and inexplicable nuance of encroaching insanity the real Little Edie so graciously exhibited for Albert and David Maysles’ probing cameras some 46 years ago.

The Maysles brothers first came into contact with the Beales after Jackie Bouvier Kennedy’s sister Lee Radziwell commissioned them to shoot a documentary about the girls’ childhood in East Hampton and they tagged along with her on a trip to Grey Gardens, longtime home of the Beales, the aunt and first cousin with whom they vacationed over summer vacations and holidays. Funded by Radziwill, the project was scraped when the Maysles screened the footage they’d shot of the reclusive Beales for their patron in an attempt to convince her a documentary about them was a better idea. She instead pulled the plug, confiscating the negatives and withdrawing her funding.

But the then-unknown filmmakers returned to the crumbling raccoon- and rodent-infested estate which was home to 52 stray cats and an army of fleas, where they reshot and recorded the footage themselves at their own expense. The film unrelentingly followed the two formerly incredibly wealthy, once highly connected socialites inexplicably spending their golden years living in poverty inhabiting the derelict mansion where the county health department was constantly at their heels—something Little Edie found quite odd, since all the compliance notices continuously placed under their door only added to the mounds of clutter.

Their curious story became a huge controversy, especially considering how Jackie O and the family ignored their plight, at least until the film was released. After stating publicly at the time that it was a private family matter only, Jackie subsequently sent a crew to the Hamptons to clean the place up and make it habitable for the Beales once again.

Under the loving direction of Michael Wilson, York and Buckley chew the scenery—in a good way. York appears to literally be channeling the odd physicality of Little Edie in every regard, to the point where, when she manages to nail one of the loony 56-year-old’s many goofy quirks that helped make the documentary such a success, the audience hoots and applauds in grateful recognition. York hilariously re-creates Little Edie’s infamous American flag dance from the documentary, her image like so many others projected behind her on the set as the characters are recorded live by two onstage videographers, and she’s also given a welcome chance to show off her magnificent pipes in “The Revolutionary Costume for Today.”

But just when you think nothing Buckley has accomplished in her illustrious half-century career could be topped, here she is ready to knock everyone out of their chairs once again as the dying semi-invalid Big Edie, her signature voice wavering from Florence Foster Jenkins moosecalls into her own unmistakably glorious song stylings. She is especially memorable in the recurring haunting ballad “Around the World” and heartbreaking in the lonely, plaintive “The Cake I Had.” All that’s missing, just for old time’s sake, is Big Edie delivering Sir Andrew’s “Memory” at final curtain as a twinkle-lit tire rises from the Beales’ rubble and hoists Buckley high into the Ahmanson’s riggings.

Bookwriter Doug Wright’s first act takes place in 1941 before the Beales lost their minds, which craftily leaves the second act free for the company to re-create their sadly dysfunctional world in 1973 as the film was being shot on the property. It’s a brilliant concept, although it leaves Act One feeling rather old-fashioned and stuffy, with every detail of the great old estate shown in perfect detail and Ilona Somogyi’s gorgeous costuming looking as though designed by Edith Head.

This is also accentuated by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie’s waltz time-y Act One score, which could have been composed by Charles K. Harris at the end of the 19th-century rather than reflecting the 1940s—something Big Edie might have found more compatible with her lifestyle and singing talent. If someone was not familiar with the documentary and aware of what would unfold when the action switches to 1973, however, the intermission might be a time for some patrons to decide to take off early.

Still, the first act performances are also golden. York here plays Big Edie and Sarah Hunt appears as her daughter, not quite ready to relinquish her sanity to care for Big Edie and live a hermit’s existence for the rest of her life despite her mother’s penchant for driving her suitors away “faster than a social disease.” The other people in the Beales’ life, including Little Edie’s soon-discouraged suitor Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (Josh Young) and Big Edie’s evangelistic radio guru Norman Vincent Peale (Simon Jones) are played by a fine ensemble assaying multiple roles with ease.

Almost seeming like another colorful character, Jeff Cowie’s set is magnificent, the same grand and painfully pristine living room of the mansion revealed in Act Two to look as though a tornado had hit the property. Howell Binkley’s lighting and Jason H. Thompson’s dynamic projections, which include foliage outside high windows that wave in the breeze and overgrown vines overtaking the exterior in the later period, add significantly to the sweeping spectacle of this show, enveloping but still allowing a palpable intimacy to the tale despite the stateliness and rich appointments of the Ahmanson stage.

It’s quite an accomplishment that GREY GARDENS can be so splendidly mounted and yet the story of the Beales’ miserable and horribly codependent lives unfolds without being overpowering. That can be credited more to the vision of Wilson and the indelible performances of York and Buckley, both of whom deserve the title theatrical legend—and Los Angeles is lucky to have them here working miracles few artists could possibly imagine.