Grim film documentaries are not supposed to be the stuff of musical theater. Chances are you know the premise of David and Albert Maysles’ Grey Gardens (1975), even if you’ve never seen it. Two batty old patricians, a mother and daughter both named Edith, squabble amid the squalor of a 28-room East Hampton mansion filled with cat feces. This unashamedly voyeuristic exploration of the rich and well-connected, now fallen from grace, invites gasps and winces.
Late-night showings of the film in places like Greenwich Village have produced hordes of fans who can recite every line of dialogue, as with devotees of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Sound of Music. Removing themselves from the original footage, Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore turned the women into more polished dramatic creations for the 2009 HBO movie.
Against all that tradition you have to be startled that in Doug Wright’s 2006 book for Grey Gardens: The Musical, with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, you can hear heartfelt singing and peals of uproarious laughter. Well, not in the same scene. Rarely Done Productions’ mounting of Grey Gardens: The Musical is the only area premiere of the three shows in the first District Festival, at the New York State Fairgrounds’ Empire Theater.
What Wright (known for I Am My Own Wife and the movie Quills) has done is to create a prequel for the long first act, with 15 musical numbers, projected back to 1941 from what the women say about each other. To help us jump back in time, the script has Old or Big Edie (Tina Lee) in a white wig, the persona we know from the documentary, appear before the action begins. Yes, we are in the right place. Then we’re whisked back to the gleaming Grey Gardens, the name of the women’s mansion, in the glamorous days before World War II, with period costumes by Ellen Colelli. The look and the brio evoke Grace Kelly’s last movie, High Society (1956), Cole Porter’s musical adaptation of Philip Barry’s The Philadelphia Story. Little wonder it looks like a good time.
At this time Big Edie, or Edith Bouvier Beale (Aubry Ludington Panek), is a stat uesque redhead, like Rita Hayworth with a better voice. Her nubile daughter, Little Edie Beale (Ceara Rose Windhausen), nicknamed “Body Beautiful Beale,” is in her early 20s and looking for an appropriate husband. Her intended is indeed impressive: Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. (Chris Wiacek), for whom his powerful father, the ambassador to the Court of St. James, has intended great things.
The occasion of the first act is to celebrate Edie and Joseph’s engagement.
He is not the only Kennedy connection. Present also are the nieces, dark-haired Jacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier (Lauren Koss), the future first lady, and her redhaired sister Lee Bouvier (Nancy O’Connor), destined to marry a Polish prince.
These voices are augmented by two men, both of whom appear devoted to Big Edie in non-romantic ways. One is the faithful retainer Brooks (Michael Dean Anderson), and another is the gay musician George Gould Strong or “Gould” (Joshua D. Smith). Handily, he is always seated at the piano but is given to mordant humor. Commenting on how little it costs to keep him, he offers, “I only eat enough bread to soak up the gin.”
Also making an appearance is Big Edith’s disapproving father, Major Bouvier (Robert Kovak), a golf-playing reactionary. He doesn’t like the way his daughter comports herself, “an actress without a stage,” but he is awarded one of the better songs, “Marry Well,” accompanied by Brooks, Jackie, Lee and little Edie. Noel Coward would be proud to claim it.
Elsewhere the music has a pleasant sense of déją vu, with repeated if welcome echoes of Jerome Kern and Cole Porter. Michael Korie’s lyrics mimic Porter further with puns and rhymes on famous names of that day as well as coy innuendo. The music may not stick with you, but it offers generous platforms for the talents of mother and daughter. Listen for Ludington Panek in “The Girl Who Has Everything,” “Will You?” and “The Five-Fifteen,” and Windhausen with “Mother Darling” and “Daddy’s Girl.”
Windhausen as the young Edie cannot appear in the second act, of course.
Yet Grey Gardens is a splendid outing for a voice and presence last seen in May as the soprano Snoopy in Not Another Theatre Company’s You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
The 1941 idyll ends badly for Little Edie, as we know it must, but Big Edith’s cruel dismissal signals the acrimony that’s to come: “You’ll cry, your mascara will run, and you’ll look like an Egyptian.”
Any cutting wit to be found in the shorter second act comes from the actual subjects as recorded in the Maysles documentary. Big Edith (Tina Lee), now in her late 70s, appears in a white wig and is bedridden. Little Edie (Aubry Ludington Panek again) is now 56 and dressed in an outré wrap whose hood covers her thinning hair, a new source of embarrassment.
A complete musicalization of the original film probably would have been unbearable, but we feel a strange disorientation to hear the familiar lines spoken by live performers before us. Even more than in the Lange-Barrymore HBO film, the tacky pathos of the documentary are displaced by something much more poignant. That Edith and Edie can now sing, three times in duet, also changes things utterly.
Tina Lee delivers wonderful work for a character who has to reach for the spotlight in “The Cake I Had,” but the second act really belongs to Aubry Ludington Panek. She’s long been associated with Rarely Done, and one wonders if director Dan Tursi would have slated such a risky vehicle if he did not know what the two roles would do for her and what she brings to them. Her music in the second act is more memorable, especially her solos “The House We Live In” and “Around the World.”
More importantly, Ludington Panek blows away all of the character’s campy excrescences. In the second-to-last scene, spotlight full on her face, she hears the croaking call of her mother, regressing her to childhood, but not without resentment and, finally resignation. The shabby fool of the documentary has become a deeply tragic figure. o
This production runs through March 23.
See Times Table for information.