In 1972, health department inspectors raided Grey Gardens, a decrepit 28-room mansion in salubrious East Hampton, New York. According to the New York Times, the house violated ‘every known building regulation’.
Occupying the house at the time were two women – a mother and daughter who both went by the name Edith Beale (‘Big Edie’ and ‘Little Edie’). Dozens of cats, racoons and possums had also called Grey Gardens their home for many years. Health department officials advised the women that unless the house was cleaned, they would be evicted.
The story became a national scandal, owing in large part to the fact that the women were the aunt and cousin of former first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Ultimately, Jacqui O paid US$32,000 for the clean up of the house, which included the carting away of over 1,000 bags of garbage. And in 1975, two documentary makers arrived to film these eccentric women in their decaying home and share their story with the world.
At first glance, Grey Gardens seems like such unusual and unlikely source material for a musical, but on stage, courtesy of playwright Doug Wright, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, it makes for a powerful and compelling tale, a tale that, while fixing on two women ultimately so disconnected from the world, has central themes that will resonate with most.
Act I takes place in 1941 and centres on preparations for the announcement of Little Edie’s engagement to Joe Kennedy Jr (JFK’s oldest sibling, who died in the second world war at the age of 29). While the events portrayed in Act I are fictitious (it’s disputed how well acquainted Joe Kennedy and Little Edie actually were), it appropriately suggests the fortunes of the Bouvier Beale family, who were wealthy, accomplished, and very much a part of the elite East Hampton fold. It’s perhaps also a tad too long, but it builds to a conclusion that is utterly perfect in setting the scene for the events of Act II.
Act II is a rather faithful tribute to the documentary, much of the dialogue and events lifted straight from the 1975 film. Here, Little Edie is 56 and Big Edie is 79, and if you weren’t familiar with that film, you’d certainly be forgiven for dismissing a sizeable chunk of the dialogue as ludicrous. In fact, there’s little in the way of exaggeration.
Despite the essentially melancholic development of the story, which sees the two women finding themselves abandoned by family and friends, there’s good light and shade in this work. That’s thanks in part to dialogue lifted from the documentary, but also the result of a thoughtfully conceived score by Frankel, which includes gems such as ‘The Revolutionary Costume for Today’, in which Little Edie describes the outfit she’s chosen to wear for the day against her elderly mother’s wishes. But of course, there are also some wonderfully poignant moments too, including ‘Around the world’, in which the aging Little Edie, surrounded by her most prized treasures, reminisces about what could have been, had she made different choices.
How different Little Edie’s life could have been is certainly one of the most difficult questions at the centre of Grey Gardens. The musical successfully recreates arguments between mother and daughter captured on film by the Maysles, in which Little Edie insists that her mother convinced her to return home at a time of illness, on the eve of Little Edie getting her big break. Big Edie disputes this version of events, highly sceptical about the extent of her daughter’s fortunes while she lived in New York. Where on the spectrum the truth lies is really anyone’s guess. But interestingly, a piece Little Edie quotes is Robert Frost’s wonderful 1916 poem, ‘The Road Not Taken’, the meaning of which has widely been debated, but Frost himself has intimated it reflects the human tendency to attribute excessive blame to minor events in one’s life.
Ultimately, despite the peculiar way in which they lived, the two women provided support to one another and continued living together in Grey Gardens until Big Edie’s death in 1977. Never did they make apologies for the way they lived, and the musical succeeds in delivering their story in a tone that is entirely without judgment.
Bringing to life the complex characters in Squabbalogic’s Grey Gardens is a superior cast. Beth Daly has the toughest ask, taking on Big Edie for the piece’s first act then having to make the transformation to the aging Little Edie for Act II. To portray two distinctly different roles is challenging, but Daly shows she’s more than capable of pulling off the task. Her performances are utterly convincing, and those familiar with the documentary will be left gobsmacked by just how successfully she embodies Little Edie in Act II, right down to her postures and gestures. Daly’s only issue is her tendency in the second act to fall in and out of her accent, but it’s fortunately not enough of a shortcoming to detract meaningfully from her excellent overall performance. Her delivery of the Act I closer, ‘Will you’, is strong and measured and showcases Daly’s vocal talents.
Caitlin Berry impresses from her arrival on stage in act I as the young and beautiful Little Edie, with aspirations for marriage and the Broadway stage. She’s fiery and ‘spirited’, just as those around her describe her, and vocally, she is consistently strong. Notably, she demonstrates a superior soprano range. She’s certainly an actor from whom we’re bound to see much more. She has a great deal to offer the professional musical theatre scene.
Continuing to demonstrate the high calibre of this cast is Maggie Blinco, who is a revelation in Act II as the elderly Big Edie. Not only does she deserve commendation for her willingness to sport some of her character’s most revealing wardrobe choices, but like Daly, she’s enormously successful in creating a character reduced in her influence and means. It’s difficult to imagine any other actress being able to more successfully embody the Big Edie we see in the Maysles’ film. On top of her acting choices, her powerful vocals were genuinely surprising. Blinco’s performance is a triumph and the work of a truly seasoned actor.
While the women are very much the stars of Grey Gardens, there are moments for its male cast members to shine. The standout male performance here came from Blake Erickson in the role of Big Edie’s long-time friend, George Gould Strong. He didn’t miss his chance to make his mark with an emotional performance of ‘Drift Away’, a definite standout moment in Act I.
Additionally, Simon McLachlan impressed as both Joe Kennedy Jr and as Jerry Torre, a teenager who provided assistance to the women with some of the upkeep of Grey Gardens in their later years. Russell Newman was a commanding presence as Big Edie’s father, ‘major’ Bouvier. And while Timothy Springs has limited opportunity to leave an impression, his performance as gardener and maintenance man, Brooks, made him an essential part of this fantastic cast.
Mention must also be made of the performances of the two child actors. On opening night, Sian Fuller and Jenna Kennan gave wonderful performances as a young Jacqui and Lee Bouvier respectively and, without giving anything away, took their chance to continue providing integral support to the company right throughout the second half.
Director Jay James-Moody deserves sincere congratulations for what he’s accomplished here. He’s assembled just the right cast to tell this story, and has led his central players to successfully portray characters that aren’t just peculiar individuals whose behaviour is bizarre, but instead are three-dimensional people with whom we can, and ultimately do, sympathise.
While the question at the outset of the show asks how could American royalty fall so far so fast, Grey Gardens sends its audiences off trying to understand how the royalty here could be allowed to fall so fast, and to such depths, by those around them. While Jacqui Kennedy Onassis attracted criticism at the time for the poverty-stricken conditions that defined the Beales’ existence at Grey Gardens, it becomes obvious that the increasing eccentricity of the pair shrinks their world and isolates them. While it is a tale of broken dreams and unrealised lives, it is also a story of survival and hope.
Dates: Until 12th December, 2015
Times: Tues – Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm
Tickets: $59 / Concession $42 / Previews $42 / Under 30 and students $30 Tues & Wed / Thursday Date Night 2 x tickets for $90 / Group (6) $52
In Conversation with the Cast and Crew Q&A: Following the 2pm performance on Saturday, December 5th
For more information or bookings, visit www.seymourcentre.com or phone the Seymour Centre Box Office on (02) 9351 7940.