Few can resist feeling a little smug when the mighty are fallen. How to otherwise explain the continuing existence of the tabloids; most of us can’t help but sneak a peek at the latest Lindsay/Kim/Brangelina fiasco from our safe, if decidedly unglamorous, place in the grocery-store checkout line.
Tabloid appeal only partially explains the enduring popularity of “Grey Gardens.”
First a documentary, then a Broadway musical based on the documentary, followed by a HBO film, “Grey Gardens” the musical is the third-annual co-production by the Fifth Avenue and ACT Theatre, directed by ACT artistic director Kurt Beattie and currently onstage at ACT’s Allen Arena Theatre.
The two Edith Bouvier Beales — the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, known respectively as Big Edie and Little Edie — first came under public scrutiny when the Suffolk County Health Department threatened to evict the two women from their cat, -raccoon- and flea-infested mansion known as Grey Gardens, located in the fashionable hamlet of East Hampton, N.Y. Jackie Onassis and Lee Radziwill came to their rescue, hiring workers to clean out Grey Gardens and further fueling the tabloid flames.
The 1975 documentary follows the two crazy cat ladies as they unabashedly go about their daily routines (feeding their 50-plus cats and the raccoons in the attic, spontaneously breaking into song and dance, complaining about one another), while living in the truly dreadful squalor of Grey Gardens.
Needy, commanding Big Edie demands constant attention from her emotionally damaged, but still spirited, daughter. Little Edie’s chutzpah, obvious intelligence and unique fashion sense inspired a cult following. Through family portraits and clipping from the society pages, the movie shows the enormity of the Edies’ fall from grace without revealing the underlying reasons.
“Grey Gardens” the musical opens with a prologue that provides a glimpse of the two Edies in the degenerated state depicted in the documentary before Act I takes us back to 1941. Grey Gardens was still a great estate, and the Edies were a wealthy, albeit eccentric, socialite and her high-spirited, debutante daughter. Act I re-imagines the family dynamics that planted the seeds for the unhealthy mother-daughter relationship and the decline of their financial circumstances, but the ultimate cause of their shocking decline as portrayed in Act II remains a mystery.
With her fine Broadway voice and comic timing, Patti Cohenour does a terrific double-turn as Big Edie in Act I and middle-aged Little Edie in Act II. Her Big Edie displays the seeds of the self-centered bossiness that comes to full fruition in the screeching harridan of Act II (depicted true-to-the-documentary by Seattle theater veteran Suzy Hunt.)
But it is Cohenour’s Little Edie of Act II that truly shines: Beyond walking the walk and talking the talk, she evinces the pathos of her situation, taking her beyond a mere recreation of the Little Edie of the documentary.
Jessica Skerrit is lovely and spirited as the youthful Little Edie, but her occasional lack of articulation when singing received little help from ACT’s presentation of the musical in the round. ACT is the first theater to present “Grey Gardens” in the round. Although the intimacy of the in-the-round format promoted the fly-on-the-wall feeling of the documentary, Skerrit’s was not the only voice to suffer acoustically when the audience was facing a singer’s back.
The overall fine cast includes actor and pianist Mark Anders as Big Edie’s dipsomaniac, live-in accompanist; Ekello Harrid Jr. as stoic butler Brooks; Allen Fitzpatrick as Big Edie’s father, Major Bouvier; and Matt Owen as dashing Joe Kennedy Jr.
Those who have seen the documentary will enjoy the reenactments of scenes from the film. The song “The House We Live In” recreates Little Edie’s flag-waving dance with the accompaniment of the military honor guard that lives only in her imagination. With music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, many of the songs satirize traditional Broadway show tunes.
Matthew Smucker’s stage design faithfully recreates the cringe-worthy, stained twin mattresses, mini-fridge and hot plate from the Edies’ litter-strewn bedroom pictured in the documentary.
Catherine Hunt’s costumes display Little Edie’s unusual style sense that included flamboyant head coverings to hide her hair loss from alopecia. Edie’s look has inspired fashion designers; some audience members sported Edie-look-alike head coverings on opening night.
Due to the high demand for tickets, “Grey Gardens” has added five additional performances and will play at ACT through June 2. For more information, go to www.5thavenue.org or www.acttheatre.org.
To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.