Musical based on cult documentary hits all the right notes
GREY GARDENS by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (Acting Up Stage/Linda & Chris Montague). At the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley). Runs to March 6. $30-$55. 416-368-3110. See listing. Rating: NNNN
You might think that a documentary wouldn’t translate well to a musical, but Grey Gardens, adapted from David and Albert Maysles’s film about “Little” Edie Beale and her mother, Edith Bouvier Beale (“Big” Edie), two socialites reduced to poverty in their decaying East Hampton mansion, beautifully captures their codependent relationship and our ambivalent, ever-changing feelings toward them.
After a brief prologue set in 1973 in which it’s established that the women – the cousin and aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – are living in decrepitude, the show flashes back 32 years so we see them in their glory, on the day that young Edie’s (Kira Guloien) engagement to Joe Kennedy Jr. (Jeff Lillico) is about to be announced.
Edie’s mother, Edith (Lisa Horner), is practically estranged from her unseen businessman husband, and clings to dreams of singing as well as her “relationship” with her (obviously gay) live-in pianist, George (Tim Funnell). When it appears that both George and Edie will soon be leaving her, she lashes out.
Composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie have great fun in this act suggesting the era’s musical styles and hinting in song lyrics, and even in their titles (Daddy’s Girl, Two Peas In A Pod), at unnaturally close relationships. Knowing what’s to come in the women’s lives, these scenes resonate deeply.
The second half has less momentum but more psychological depth, since it’s mostly about Little Edie (played this time by Horner), who’s become delusional. Mother and daughter (Nicola Lipman plays Big Edie) bicker and feed on scraps of the past, and director Ann Hodges’s production gains complexity as secondary characters from the first act wander through Camellia Koo’s versatile set like ghosts.
The cast is brilliant. Lillico does double duty as a cocky but careful Kennedy in act one and a dim but kind-hearted gardener in act two. Guloien is a revelation as the young, spirited Edie desperate to leave the nest, while Lipman’s older Big Edie is cagey and savvy, a survivor.
But the biggest role belongs to Horner, and she seizes it, making you see the hope, anger, loneliness and frustration of both women. Her voice can blast out like a brass band or sweetly make you cry at a sad waltz.
She’s astonishing. The Dora Award is hers.