On the drive home, my date said “How could someone make something so beautiful out of such a tragic story?”
The tragedy is Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and Edith Bouvier Beale – better known as Big Edie and Little Edie, mother and daughter in the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. The beauty is the 2006 Broadway musical adaptation, written by Doug Wright and featuring music by Scott Frankel and lyrics Michael Korie.
Grey Gardens continues through August 26. New Hazlett Theater. 8 Allegheny Square East, North Side. www.frontporchpgh.com
The Beales were aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy and Lee Radziwell. Once rich and aristocratic, by the 1970’s the Edies were living in filth and squalor inside a derelict East Hamptons mansion called “Grey Gardens” infested with raccoons, cats and vermin. Filmmaker brothers Albert and David Maysles, initially looking at a documentary about Radziwell, ended up chronicling the Beales and their intensely dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship fueled by mental illness.
So … a musical? It may seem unlikely but Wright, Frankel and Korie create a compelling, unsettling and moving theatrical event.
The first act takes us back to 1941. We’re at Grey Gardens for the engagement party of young Little Edie and Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. with a score of pastiche songs written by Frankel and Korie to echo music from the period. Though a day of celebration, Wright’s book gives us flashes of what the women are destined to become. The second act, set in 1973, is sort of a musicalized mini-version of the documentary. Most of the dialogue, and much of the lyrics, are taken directly from the film. Here Little Edie is 56, Big Edie is 79 and their toxic relationship is in full, hideous flower with much of their torment, pent-up fury and ache for connection is expressed with beautifully sorrowful music.
Front Porch Theatricals presents the Pittsburgh premiere of Grey Gardens and this production, as per their usual, is a showcase for a wealth of richly talented local artists and craftspeople.
Robyne Parrish directs with an enormous compassion for these women without downplaying the hurt they cause. She refuses to take sides, allowing both women the space to tell their truth.
Music director Douglas Levine leads a nine-person orchestra giving this amazing score all the brilliance, color and intelligence it demands. Johnmichael Bohach has been very clever about the set design, expertly lit by Andrew David Ostrowski with Julianne D’Errico providing the defining costumes.
Chad Elder and Ryan Jackson give strong performances as members of the Beale household, Kaylie Mae Wallace – as the Little Edie of the first act – sings with enough power to raise the dead. Daniel Mayhak expertly balances the smug certainty of Kennedy in the first act with his mellow and slightly stupid Jerry in act two.
In the second act, Big Edie is played by Beth Johnstone Bush with a precision and remarkable immediacy that is breath-taking; we somehow manage to loathe her machinations and pity her helplessness.
In Grey Gardens the actress playing Big Edie in the first act then plays Little Edie in the second and without taking anything away from the host of talented actresses in this city, I don’t think there’s anyone else I would have wanted to see tackle this role than Daina Michelle Griffith. Even if you’ve marveled at her past performances (and I have) you’re still not prepared for the shattering desolation she creates onstage. Her performance is a tribute to both the memory of Little Edie but also the power of musical theater.