BWW Reviews: From Everything to Nothing: GREY GARDENS the Musical (Actors' Theatre)

By: Jun. 11, 2014
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The offbeat and somewhat perplexing musical Grey Gardens acts as a pseudo-documentary of the rise and fall of the reclusive mother/daughter duo of "Big" Edith Bouvier Beale and "Little" Edith Bouvier Beale. Aunt and cousin, respectively, of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the story follows their lives from high society to abject poverty, living in a decomposing mansion overrun with flea-infested cats.

Grey Gardens the Musical is based upon the 1976 documentary of the same name, by Albert and David Maysles. Footage from this documentary is played as a prologue, accompanied, ironically, by the song 'The Girl Who Has Everything'.

This introduction transitions into the luxurious Grey Gardens mansion of 1941 on the eve of Little Edie's engagement party, wherein the play takes on the camp qualities of other pre-World War II musicals. This portion of the show is the product of fantasy, as the writers imagined what it would have been like for the family at the peak of their fame. The songs are upbeat and Porter-esque and the Bouvier family is at the height of its influence and grandeur. Big Edie (Kathy Gibson) is portrayed as a self-involved socialite whose time is spent preparing musical works with her charming, ivory-tickling "soulmate", George Gould Strong (Neil Trevisan), while Little Edie (Allyson Paris) longs for the freedom to pursue her own dreams of stage and screen. After expressing her sincere desire to have things remain the same and not to lose her daughter, Big Edie sabotages her daughter's engagement to the White House-seeking Joe Kennedy and Act One draws to its conclusion as Little Edie makes her escape to New York City, leaving Big Edie to entertain the party guests (the audience) with the heart-breaking "Will You".

The transformation of the set between Acts One and Two is fascinating in itself and the decline of Big and Little Edie even more, though it feels a bit like schadenfreude to think so. This is where the documentary comes into play. For those who have seen it, the imagery and dialogue (transitioning into song) will be very familiar, having been taken directly from the women themselves. Big Edie (Rose Anne Shansky), thirty years later, is mostly bed-ridden although still controlling her daughter's life in her own passive aggressive manner, hidden well beneath a sanguine exterior. Little Edie (Gibson), in strange combinations of ill-fitting and revealing garments (iconic from the film) mourns her lost freedom, lost life, and lost beauty. And in the end, Little Edie cannot leave her mother and Big Edie finally shows that her staunch optimism is a front for her deep fear of abandonment.

Though well-performed by a talented cast, the show itself seems to be geared primarily towards the audience who know and love the cult documentary on which it was based. The supporting cast of characters have been written to be stereotypical, without a lot of expressed depth, including the booming patriarch, the harassed domestic employee, the flamboyant piano man, and the charming but self-absorbed beau. At times the story is difficult to follow and the overall feeling of the second half is overwhelmingly bleak. The dream sequences (flashing cat eyes and gospel choirs) and odd songs such as "Jerry Likes My Corn" seem intended to lighten the gloom and ease the disjuncture between the first and second acts, but instead serve to increase the level of peculiarity and the feeling that this is more of a surrealist work of art than a Broadway musical.

The highlights of the show, however, include the transformation of Gibson to embody both Big Edie and Little Edie with incredible success, and she owns some of the best musical numbers of the show. Rose Anne Shansky, as the elderly Edith, is a surprisingly sympathetic character, and it becomes understandable how she would have such a hold on her tragic heroine of a daughter; she is difficult not to love. Edith's young nieces, including Jackie (Elizabeth Foster) and Lee Bouvier (Julie Lauer), who would later become famous as Mrs. Kennedy Onassis and Princess Lee Radziwill, although they serve no actual agent to the progression of the plot, are precious, and the ensemble as a whole works well together, portraying these historic characters in a way that is recognizable and compassionate.

Book by Doug Wright; music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie; based on the film Grey Gardens by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Mayer and Susan Froemke; directed by Fred Sebulsky; music direction by Michael Shansky; choreography by Erin Kacos. Presented by Grand Rapids Actors' Theatre at the GRCC Spectrum Theater; (616) 234-3946. Through June 14th. All shows begin at 8pm.

WITH: Elizabeth Foster (Jacqueline "Jackie" Bouvier), Kathy Gibson (Edith Bouvier Beale 1941/"Little" Edie Beale 1973), Julie Lauer (Lee Bouvier), Allyson Paris ("Little" Edie Beale 1941), Steve Place (J.V. "Major" Bouvier/Norman Vincent Peale), Lewis Richards (Brooks Sr./Brooks Jr.), Rose Anne Shansky (Edith Bouvier Beale 1973), Neil Trevisan (George Gould Strong), John Vesbit (Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr./Jerry)


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