Saturday, February 28, 2009

Grey Gardens, Beck Center

(Patrick Janson as Gould and Maryann Nagel as "Big Edie" Beale.)

It’s too bad Extreme Makeover: Home Edition wasn’t on the air back in the early 1970s, because they could have had a blast with one dilapidated, cat- and rabid raccoon-infested property in East Hampton, New York.

That was the home, for 50 years of the Beales—Edith “Big Edie” Beale and her daughter Edith “Little Edie” Beale. As the aunt and first cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, respectively, the Beale women were born and bred in the highest strata of society, with their peak in the 1940s.

But as the decades progressed, the Edies retreated into isolation in their 28-room cottage-style mansion, called Grey Gardens, where their rather sizable eccentricities had room to grow unimpeded by outside influences. This led to a compelling 1975 documentary by the Maysles brothers and, a couple years ago, a musical adaptation of that story.

Both works are titled Grey Gardens, but this theatrical version, now at the Beck Center, manages to capture all the exquisite weirdness of these two women while couching their story in a believable and fascinating context (something the film couldn’t or didn’t do). And thanks to a spectacular production, directed flawlessly by Victoria Bussert, the entire evening works even when by all right it shouldn’t.

The material at hand—book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie—has many brilliant moments but also suffers from stretches of predictable fare.

In the first act, set in the then-fabulous mansion in 1941, Big Edie is a larger-than-life Aunty Mame character who continually embarrasses her 24-year-old daughter Little Edie by continually singing at social occasions. Big Edie is also possessive, and isn’t on board with her daughter’s impending marriage to young Joe Kennedy (yes, that would be John, Bobby and Teddy’s older brother), so she sabotages it by sharing Little Edie’s rather loose history as a party girl.

But much of Act One is taken up with watching Big Edie trill songs, accompanied by a gay pianist and hanger-on, George “Gould” Strong (the excellent Patrick Janson). These ditties delight two youngsters on hand, little Jackie Bouvier and her sister Lee (who later was Lee Radziwill), as Big Edie’s father J.V. Bouvier (George Roth) rumbles and rants about all this frivolous folderol. Little Edie (Jillian Kates Bumpas) tries to keep her life together and moving forward, but the familial forces are too strong for her to overcome.

Once Act Two begins, we are inside the mansion in 1973 and everything has changed. It’s just the two Beales, along with a teenage boy, Jerry, who wanders in now and then to hang out and grab a bite to eat. And this is where the play really gains traction, as the now almost bed-ridden Big Edie and the sartorially whacked out Little Edie pursue their dead-end existence.

On the surface, large swaths of the Beales’ life might not sound all that interesting, and it wouldn’t be if not acted by Maryann Nagel and Lenne Snively. Nagel turns in yeoman work, as she is both the stylish and self-possessed Big Edie in the first act and Little Edie in the second. As Big Edie, Nagel is electric and delightful while establishing her strong relationship with her daughter. This is absolutely necessary, so we can believe Little Edie would still stick around after the events unfold.

Snively doesn’t really have much to do until after the intermission, but then she totally embodies the elderly Big Edie, carping at her daughter and cooing to Jerry as he does her small favors.

Indeed, it’s hard to remember two stronger musical numbers to begin a second act than the one-two punch provided by Nagel and Snively in this show.

Nagel strikes first with “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” a jocular trip through Little Edie’s goofy wardrobe decisions: “The best kind of clothes for a protest pose/Is this ensemble of pantyhose/ pulled over the shorts, worn under the skirt/that doubles as a cape.” And yes, it looks just as strange when you see her. (Check out this fashion show by the real Little Edie, it's the last three minutes of the four-minute cut, after a minute of Big Edie.)

Then Snively chimes in with “The Cake I Had,” as Big E. justifies her response to people who always told her you can’t have your cake and eat it too. As she sings, “What good is cake you have but never eat?/I never could deny myself a sweet/So I sliced my life and licked my knife/And ate the cake I had.”

Those two performers are given strong support by those already mentioned, plus Jonathan Walker White who doubles as a wonderfully believable Joe Kennedy and as slacker Jerry, and Darryl Lewis as two generations of household help. Annie Kostell and Natalie Welch are also sweet as the little Bouvier girls.

And it’s all brought together by director Bussert, who stages each of the many musical numbers with individual flair and a proper sense of time and place. She even has some of the cast portray a few of the more than fifty cats that inhabited the mansion in the later years. And it all works, if some of the folks have less-than-perfect Hampton’s accents.

The Beck production of Grey Gardens is a burst of color and exotic strangeness that has something to say about following your own drummer, even if he’s beating on an empty tin can.

Grey Gardens
Through March 29 at the
Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Road,
Lakewood, 216-521-2540

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