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Review: 'Grey Gardens' at WaterTower Theatre

by Jerome Weeks 8 Oct 2009 6:59 AM

Jackie Kennedy’s invalid aunt and eccentric cousin lived in the family’s squalid home on Long Island — a 28-room cat litter box. But in Grey Gardens, this deranged, defiant, bickering mother and daughter are wrapped up in a tender, haunting gothic musical. WaterTower Theatre’s area premiere of the Tony-winning Broadway show is superb, a stellar way to start the company’s new season.


Location, location: Grey Gardens became a darkened wreck in East Hampton

  • Lawson Taitte’s review for the Dallas Morning News
  • KERA review:
  • Expanded online review:

In 1972, tabloid newspapers reported that Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ cousin and her invalid aunt were living in squalor, in a rundown mansion on Long Island called Grey Gardens. Since then, the scandalous story of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie has been a Mayles brothers documentary, a recent HBO film and a Tony-winning Broadway musical — all called Grey Gardens. Now the musical is getting its area premiere from Addison’s WaterTower Theatre.

The musical doesn’t simply replicate the story from the Maysles’ documentary. Written by Doug Wright, the former Dallasite and Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist, it imagines how Edith and Edie ended up as bickering hermits facing eviction from their decrepit East Hampton home. The first act is set in 1941, and it’s all lively drawing-room comedy, cocktails by the piano, parties on the lawn, well-mannered children performing songs, well-mannered black servants in white jackets. In this moment from the Broadway cast recording, the domineering, free-spirited Edith is planning a little soiree — while her often-absent husband commutes home from Wall Street. Edith is going to announce Edie’s engagement to Joseph Kennedy, Jr. He was the eldest Kennedy brother, the one on whom the family originally pinned its White House hopes — before turning to his younger brother, Jack. Edith will make the engagement public via a little concert she’s prepared for her high-society guests – and the invited press. She’ll sing a couple of original tunes, several arias from operas — anything to steal the all attention from her daughter Edie. Edith has even printed up a program.

smaller GG1

Little Edie (Kimberly Whalen) and Joe Kennedy, Jr, the man who would be president (Matt Moore)

SONG: The Five-Fifteen

Brooks, Sr. (spoken):
“Ma’am, the caterers arrived, where would you like them to set up?”

Edith: (sung):
“Put the chafing dishes on the garden ledge,
Once the gardener has finished with the hedge.
Chill the vichyssoise and heat the veal,
And wish me luck, ‘cause Mister Beale,
Is arriving on the 5:15.”

But before the 5:15 train arrives, we learn just how shaky the engagement is and how shaky the family is financially. The Bouvier/Beale men have the habit of draining the family fortunes and abandoning the Bouvier women.

But then, can we really blame them?

Both Edith and Edie are quarrelsome and creative sorts. They’re demanding and always defying convention — when they’re not deranged. Doug Wright does a masterful balancing act with the musical’s book. We’re never entirely sure from moment to moment whether it’s Edith or Edie who truly needs psychiatric care, whether it’s the women or the men who caused life at Grey Gardens to go off the rails. Or whether Edith and Edie are plucky and resourceful — or just absolutely bipolar-bonkers.

dougherty and sheehan

Edith (Pam Dougherty) and Edie (Diane Sheehan) are worried about their cats

The show itself is brilliantly bipolar. If the first act of Grey Gardens is a female Great Gatsby, the second act is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? It’s 1973, and the two women are still caring for each other, still tormenting each other, still trapped in their rotting home.

Songwriters Scott Frankel and Michael Korie can evoke the easy, comic splendors of Cole Porter or Noel Coward — and then pull off dazzling interweavings of dialogue and music that segue from loving care to bitter regret. They’re worthy of Stephen Sondheim. In this scene, the grown-up Edie contemplates a collection of little mementos she keeps in the attic, a collection she calls “Around the World.” She once was the girl who had everything — beauty, talent, a privileged, Eastern seaboard upbringing. She was going to marry a Kennedy and sing on Broadway. Instead of sailing around the world, she dresses herself in dropcloths and dusts herself with flea powder — because of all the cats and raccoons in the house.

SONG: Around the World
“Around the world
With stones and shells.
The nicest one I lost.
Around the world
without a boat
And just a quote from Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.
A lovely crossing on.
Around the world, the world around the attic wall.”

Some real singers need to handle such music, and WaterTower Theatre has them in spades. Kimberly Whalen is period-perfect as the young Edie in the first act, headstrong and full of promise, her voice clear as bell. For her part as the invalid mother, Pam Dougherty has rarely been as poignant.

But Grey Gardens is Diane Sheehan’s show. She plays both Edith the party-planner in the first act, and then turns around to play the grown-up daughter Edie. It’s a Herculean role — she’s onstage practically the entire time. And if Sheehan is a tad overdone at times, she is an unstoppable force with a rich voice that suggests operetta from the ’30s.

Grey Gardens is not simply the tale of two crazy old cat ladies. It’s about how we become our parents, about how family members need each other and feed each other’s neuroses. It’s about 10 minutes too long and at times a little too close to high camp and gothic melodrama. But it’s musically gorgeous and tender and heartbreaking. Directed by Terry Martin, it’s one of WaterTower Theatre’s strongest productions — with James McQuillen’s music direction, plus a shadow-haunted set by lighting designer Susan White and scene designer Christopher Pickart. It’s a real achievement in polish and emotional power.

  • Grace

    I have a ticket for Sunday and am very excited!