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Betty Buckley in Grey Gardens The Musical at the Ahmanson Theatre (photo by Craig Schwartz)
Betty Buckley in Grey Gardens The Musical at the Ahmanson Theatre (photo by Craig Schwartz)

Grey Gardens

Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Ahmanson Theatre
Through August 14

A pair of cantankerous older ladies, mother and daughter, rattle around their enormous derelict mansion in this smash musical based on a legendary 1970s documentary about the downwardly mobile lives of Big and Little Edie Bouvier of the Hamptons. The film, by Albert and David Maysles, is easy to find these days: It can be seen on You Tube, and any subsequent rendering of the story will inevitably come across as a watered-down version of the jaw-dropping original. But the idea of a musical based on the two Edies is so outlandish and out of left field, it’s no wonder it caught Broadway’s imagination a few years back when it premiered. 

The musical — book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie — opens with video images of newspaper headlines about relatives of former First Lady Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, living in fetid squalor in their family manor in the Hamptons. Outside the rundown front porch, elderly Big Edie (Broadway legend Betty Buckley) bickers with her daughter Little Edie (understudy Melina Kalomas, more than ably subbing for regular performer Rachel York). The pair are on display for the documentary that is being filmed about them. Little Edie swans about in her hideous leotard and snood (made from a pair of shorts), as she desperately voices her wish to leave her needy mother and move somewhere — anywhere —  else. 

Grey Gardens, The Musical, is a bit of a “howdunnit” as opposed to a “whodunit.” How did these two backslide from women of wealth and privilege into — as we observe in one scene — a pair of hags feasting on cat food and dusting themselves with flea powder?  

The porticos of the house slide back to reveal Grey Gardens in its 1940s heyday, on the morning when beautiful young Edie (Sarah Hunt) is set to announce her engagement to none other than handsome Joe Kennedy, Jr. (played with maximum smirk by Josh Young).  The announcement is to take place at a decorous garden party — if only the family can restrain young Edie’s mother, portrayed with tightly controlled hysteria by Kalomas, from performing a concert of 9 songs.  Mom agrees to forbear for the good of the occasion, but after receiving word of a family calamity, she sabotages her daughter’s engagement, perhaps to ensure for herself a loyal companion and captive caretaker for the rest of her days. 

By the time Act 2 commences, the house, is in musty ruins (in Jeff Cowie’s nicely eerie set), and the “rest-of-their-days” has taken on the feel of perdition, as the two women, nearly bankrupt and left to their own devices, have little to do but snipe and snark at each other.  

Director Michael Wilson’s production has a stolid quality that misses the madness of Michael Greif’s original Broadway staging (Wilson’s is a new staging that was first mounted in 2015). It is best viewed, I think, as a cross between a ghost story and a cautionary tale about how, in our culture, eccentricity is tolerated in the beautiful and the brilliant, but shunned in the old and the ordinary.

Unfortunately, the show never sparkles:  The scenes in Act 2 between the two women dwell on psychological subtext in a plodding attempt to decode their mutual hostility. This isn’t necessary, as the piece is most triumphant as a contrast between then and now, age and youth.

Because the drama is stodgy and lacks a sense of fun, the focus falls on Korie’s lyrics and Frankel’s score which, without the sparkle of a spirited staging, come across as weak (This is not a show that has songs you remember afterwards.).  I admit to a marginal fondness for Buckley’s sensitive rendition of “Jerry Likes My Corn,” in which Big Edie details feeding a friend the one dish she’s able to cook in her nearby crockpot — and also for little Edie’s bitter anthem, “Another Winter in a Summer Town” — but otherwise the music seems heavy and not especially tuneful.  Distracting also are the rather tired video inserts that seem intended to remind us, needlessly, that the play is based on the earlier documentary.

Though a standby, Kalomas’ turns as the brittle Big Edie in the 1940s scenes and as the resentful and frustrated Little Edie in the 1970s scenes are enthralling. Her voice is powerful, and as a dramatic performer she displays an impressive versatility.  As the elder woman, Buckley is persuasively frail, alarming so – and she bears an almost eerie resemblance to the real life Big Edie.  Her voice, a little ragged at the edges, is still a powerful musical instrument. 

Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave, Los Angeles, Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 1 & 6:30 p.m.  Through August 14. (213) 628-2772 or Running time: 2 hours with intermission.