My friend MH, with whom Iï¿½ve seen literally hundreds of shows, has developed some interesting rules for theatergoers. One of these rules is: ï¿½It never gets better in the second act.ï¿½ Almost always this rule applies. But not with the new musical Grey Gardens that just opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre. This is definitely a case where the second act is more original and more exciting than the first act. That's not to say there isn't any enjoyment in the first act. It's just that the second act is the heart of a very good show.
Grey Gardens is based partly on a documentary film made by the Maysles brothers about Big Edie Beale and her daughter Little Edie, two eccentric relatives of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. The Beales became infamous in the early 1970s when the Suffolk County Board of Health condemned their cat-ridden, garbage-filled East Hampton mansion.
Act one of the musical is a flashback to the 1940s, when Big Edie was a sophisticate of some renown in the local area and her daughter was about to become engaged to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., principal scion of the Massachusetts Kennedys and elder brother of JFK. It presents the somewhat titillating story of an engagement party for Joe and Little Edie that never took place. Act two deals with the lives that the mother and daughter led after falling off the social radar, penniless and almost alone in the once-grand house.
The enjoyment in the evening comes not from the fact that Jackie Bouvier, aged 12, is one of the characters in the show or that the plot of act one bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Philip Barryï¿½s The Philadelphia Story. It comes from the mother-daughter relationship--a real, caring, sarcastic, funny, cutting, loving relationship--between the two Edies.
It also comes up from the smart well-integrated lyrics and music by Michael Korie and Scott Frankel. The two songs that provide dramatic climaxes of each act, ï¿½Will You?ï¿½ (act one) and ï¿½Another Winter in a Summer Townï¿½ (act two) threaten to become standards, as does the fabulous specialty number ï¿½The Revolutionary Costume for Todayï¿½ that opens the second act.
There's also a much enjoyment in the clever and accurate sets by Allen Moyer and the witty and appropriate costumes by William Ivey Long. Michael Greif has staged the production with great care and skillful timing.
I've left the best for last. The cast. It's small, but choice. Broadway old-timer John McMartin is wonderful as Big Edieï¿½s father, ï¿½Majorï¿½ Bouvier, a real old duffer. Newcomer Erin Davie is lithe and attractive as Little Edie in act one. I can't say enough good things about veteran Mary Louise Wilson's performance as the aged and bed-ridden Big Edie in act two. She brings enormous life to the role of that old gal.
But the undisputed star of the entire production, in her role of a lifetime, is the glorious Christine Ebersole, who plays the dual roles of Big Edie in act one and Little Edie in act two. She's always been a fine singer, but here she has managed to get every aspect of both characters just right. Iï¿½ll never forget her pseudo-aristocratic posturing as the almost-triumphant Big Edie in act one, or her slouchy yet energetic presence in act two. Ebersole provides the kind of tour-de-force thatï¿½s destined to be remembered up there along with famous eccentrics portrayed on Broadway by Merman and Channing and Lansbury.
Don't miss it.
What the critics had to say.....
BEN BRANTLEY of the NEW YORK TIMES says ï¿½The wit, exact detail and, above all, compassion with which Ms. Ebersole infuses each of her numbers as Little Edie are ravishing." & Watching this performance is the best argument I can think of for the survival of the American musical."
JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ of the NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says "Christine Ebersole delivers a bona fide star turn that is awesome, amazing and astonishing - and that's just the A's." & "Ebersole already has a Tony, but this performance catapults her high into the Broadway heavens. She won't be coming down to earth for a long while. And after you see her in "Grey Gardens," neither will you."
CLIVE BARNES of THE NEW YORK POST says "At the end of "Grey Gardens," Christine Ebersole looks hunched and haunted, gazing at a bleak future. It's a wondrous moment, almost an epiphany - but one enshrined in a musical of mixed and possibly limited interest." & "It's a goodish musical, but not quite goodish enough - it first overdoses on cute nostalgia, but finally it's the score that does it in. You can't have a musical without the music."
MICHAEL SOMMERS of Star-Ledger says "This distinctive new musical about some decidedly eccentric people is electrified by Christine Ebersole's tremendous performance." & "Guaranteed, anybody who sees director Michael Greif's thoughtfully designed and staged production will never, ever forget Ebersole's phenomenal double turn as resplendent Edith and far-out Little Edie. A thousand words more cannot do justice to Ebersole's exceptional artistry. She's a wonder, that's all."
LINDA WINER of NEWSDAY says "This audacious interpolation of the 1975 cult-hit documentary has transferred from Playwrights Horizons with all of its original pleasures and several significant new ones."
ELYSA GARDNER of USA TODAY says "Ebersole also sings gorgeously, and composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie have provided her with some of the most tuneful and moving songs to grace an original musical in years. Mary Louise Wilson, who adds more hilarity and heartbreak as the geriatric Edith, delivers winningly wry, catchy numbers. The supporting cast adds to a production that, for all its drollness, transcends the kitschiness that's prominent on Broadway's musical-comedy menu. Dig in and enjoy."
MICHAEL KUCHWARA of ASSOCIATED PRESS says "Let us again sing the praises of a genuine star turn ï¿½ a performance so galvanizing that it jump-starts an entire production. The performer in question is the astonishing Christine Ebersole." & "Wilson gives a masterful performance, too. She's a cranky, comic delight, able to hold her own with the formidable Ebersole, who pretty much wraps up the evening with her show-stopping number that opens Act 2."
DAVID ROONEY of VARIETY says "The show's most buzzed-about aspect has been star Christine Ebersole in a staggering dual-role performance sure to become a new benchmark for musical-theater excellence. Scaling heights of droll hilarity only to plumb searing emotional depths, capturing Edie's physical mannerisms and Long Island drawl with uncanny exactitude and finding poignant universality in the most bizarre of eccentrics, this miraculous turn deserves every superlative thrown its way.But in Michael Greif's fine production, "Grey Gardens" is much more than a tour-de-force performance." & "In a Broadway arena that can be unaccommodating for "serious" musicals, "Grey Gardens" is as boldly odd, original and beguiling as its subjects."
External links to full reviews from newspapers