‘Grey Gardens’ @ Bay Street

By Patrick Christiano

August 10, 2015

Grey Gardens, a revival of the Tony Award winning Broadway Musical, starring Betty Buckley and Rachel York opened on the Mainstage at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. The vastly entertaining production directed by Broadway veteran Michael Wilson with polished style and inventive staging is set at Grey Gardens, the Bouvier mansion in East Hampton and features some nifty choreography by Hope Clarke.

The musical follows an egocentric mother and her spirited daughter, known to the World as Big Edie and Little Edie, on their witty, yet heartbreaking decline from glamorous aristocrats to notorious recluses in a crumbling flea invested 28 room mansion filled with decaying memories, assorted raccoons, and 52 cats just a stone’s throw from Georgica Beach on West End Road.

The co-dependent tale of Big Edie and Little Edie Bouvier Beale, the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, is based on the 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles. The musical with an absorbing book by Doug Wright, who won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his play I Am My Own Wife, has 28 songs with music and lyrics by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie.

The tale is a thought provoking and fascinating study of two indomitable spirits that begins with a prologue set in 1973. Mr. Wright expands upon the documentary with an opening first act that goes back 32 years to a fictionalized summer day in 1941, when Grey Gardens was in its glorious heyday. Here Little Edie, a young debutante and a star in the social register known to the members of the Maidstone Club as “The Body Beautiful” is played charmingly by the talented Sarah Hunt. She is a stand out in this act displaying diplomatic charm in her frustrating struggle to control her mother, played by an immensely confident Rachel York, from sabotaging her engagement party by giving a concert of nine songs with her musical accompanist George Gould Strong, a kept man played by Howard McGillin.

Little Edie is radiantly in love with Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr, played with the proper entitlement by Matt Doyle. The lovebirds are awaiting the arrival of his parents to make the announcement of their impending nuptials official at the party Big Edie is orchestrating for them. They are also awaiting the arrival from New York of Little Edie’s father on the 5:15 train.

When Big Edie reveals Little Edie’s nickname, “The Body Beautiful,” to the young Kennedy and insinuations about her strong willed daughter, Joe becomes concerned about Little Edie’s flamboyant lifestyle before him. He confronts Little Edie about the men in her life prior to him and turns distrustful agreeing to wait for her farther to clarify the situation. When a telegram arrives informing Little Edie that her father will not be arriving on the 5:15 train from New York, because he is in Mexico obtaining a quickie divorce, Joe Kennedy breaks off the engagement. He abandons a heart broken Little Edie to head off his parents before their arrival at Grey Gardens. The act ends with the younger Edie fleeing to Manhattan while Big Edie entertains the now arriving guests with the wistful song “Will You,” beautifully sung by Rachel York.

The dynamics of the mother/daughter relationship established in Act I provide added resonances to Act II, which recreates the 1973 filming of the cult classic documentary. Now the audience becomes the camera as we are invited in for a guided tour of their squalid conditions, and the love/hate nature their co-dependency. We are shocked by the women’s outrageous behavior that gives us a touching look at their broken dreams and the bond that binds them. Rachel York is very funny now playing the 56 year old Little Edie, who has transformed into an outspoken madcap rebel. Bette Buckley, a grand dame of the Theater and legendary singer/ actress/performer is now the elderly Big Edie. She is both compelling and witty capturing the wacky spirit of their peculiar relationship. Her stunning voice is in great form especially on the song “The Cake I Had.” She is also marvelous and playful with York as on the song “Jerry Likes My Corn.”

The first act music is a loving pastiche to 1940’s show tunes echoing the standard and style of the great American composers. Highlights are “Two Peas in a Pod” by York and Hunt, along with “Daddy’s Girl,” a loving lament by Sarah Hunt. The songs move the tale along with smart lyrics and clever exposition. The second act songs are darker and edgier with outrageous lyrics the expose the women’s conflicts in zany moving ways. The haunting “Another Winter in a Summer Town” near the evening’s end is beautifully sung by Rachel York.

Bravo to the entire cast and production team for creating a memorable evening with a very special revival of the Tony Award winning classic.