GREY GARDENS – A Review

8 Jun

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Like all the best companies (I mean in any industry, not just in show business), Kenn McLaughlin and Stages Repertory Theatre have considerable talent for survival.

 In years past, whenever a season packed with angsty, edgy, even scary relationship dramas failed to pay all the bills, there was always another edition of Always… Patsy Cline for Stages to trot out. More recently, there was The Great American Trailer Park Musical, packing ‘em in to guffaw at redneck clichés several nights a week all summer long. Well, looking on the bright side, at least it wasn’t Forever Plaid.

 Now, at the start of another long, hot Houston summer, Stages has another hit on its hands. And unlike some of its precursors in this position, the regional premiere of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Grey Gardens has enough intellectual daring and emotional complexity that the main thing in the score is not the sound of bills being paid. The show has just been extended till June 28, and personally I wouldn’t be outraged if it goes on till practically fall.   

 Based, at times with dazzling looseness, on the gripping 1975 documentary film by the Mayles Brothers – not known for telling light or frivolous stories – Grey Gardens seems an unlikely candidate to be a musical at all. The film, simply told in gritty black and white, is the tale of two women, a mother and daughter, living in squalor with little to no money in an old, dilapidated house. The thing that caught the nation’s eye was the fact that this particular mother and daughter had once been social celebrities, members of the Bouvier family. Yes, that Bouvier family. The blue bloods who gave the world Jackie Kennedy Onassis.

Perhaps it was the story’s intrinsic non-musicality that inspired its greatest act of poetic license, taken with apparent glee by book author Doug Wright (a native Texan), composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie. Based on one offhand statement from the documentary, that the doomed and handsome young Joseph Kennedy wanted to marry this Bouvier daughter before he went off to perish in World War II, the creative team makes that romance the turning point of their storyline. Not only does this provide love, and some requisite hoping and dreaming as song fodder; it immediately connects us to emotions we can more or less understand in a tale sorely lacking in same.

 With striking originality, Wright and Co. divide the stuff that documentaries are made on into two quite distinct acts – the day of a planned engagement party for “Little Edie” Bouvier Beale and Joseph Kennedy at the Easthampton Mansion called Grey Gardens in the summer of 1941, and another day in 1972 when mother and daughter are living in filth, surrounded by cats and rabid raccoons, ducking threats from the local health department shoved under their rotting screened door. The Edies are the musical Grey Gardens: their relationship, their regrets, their constant squabbling, their efforts to liberate each other from each other against the backdrop of knowing that will never happen.

 At Stages, Houston is blessed with a cast worthy of the material, all directed by McLaughlin with energy, wry humor and near-boundless love. Broadway veteran Nancy Johnston returns to this theater in the role that shoved Christine Ebersole’s career upward a notch more, playing “Big Edie” in the first act as she almost-offhandedly seeks to spoil the engagement so her daughter will stay close, and then coming back as the grown “Little Edie” in Act II. To pull of that slight of hand requires two first-rate other singing actresses, and Stages finds them in young Rachael Logue as the spirited debutante early on and Stages amazing workhouse Susan O. Koozin as the feisty old lady three decades later. Koozin shines in particular, channeling a tiny, funny bit of Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies into the heart and mind of a polished and once-privileged woman who’s watched her life disintegrate around her.

Grey Gardens is built on women, with many mother-daughter rivalries and resentments that will ring true throughout any audience. But there are a few men onboard for the ride, led by David Matranga, who couldn’t be more delightfully different as ambitious Joseph Kennedy in Act I and then as Jerry the long-haired, uncouth 17-year-old handyman in Act II. Jonathan McVay delivers as George Gould Strong, Big Edie’s self-proclaimed soulmate, the gay pianist of the mansion in its glory days who lives like some Noel Coward wannabe on Bouvier money for cigarettes and gin. And Kendrick Mitchell has fine moments as “Negro servant” Brooks and, in the second half, as his son Brooks Jr. Mitchell’s under-his-breath deadpans when the 1941 Big Edie sings and dances an African-American romp about hominy grits, fried chicken and, yes, even watermelon are, as that commercial puts it, priceless.

 David Grant is cast as Big Edie’s wealthy father, J.V. “Major” Bouvier; and since I liked him as Signor Naccarelli in Main Street’s Light in the Piazza, I’m sure he does fine work here. On the other hand, the night I caught Grey Gardens, Grant was ill and the role was picked up by local favorite Jimmy P. Phillips. I don’t know what kind of running start Phillips had, but it seemed like he’d been playing The Major his whole life.  

 Unusually enthusiastic kudos for making this Stages show a hit go to musical director Steven Jones, who keeps the small orchestra hidden away but perfect – and no doubt drilled the cast like the Bataan Death March to get the score’s complicated harmonies and quirky repartee just right. And the set designed by Kevin Holden is a lovely, moving, turning joy, quite ambitious by the typically minimalist Stages standards. Having got all these pieces in place, Stages should keep using them for a good, long while. – John DeMers

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