Rogers and Hammerstein it’s not.
Grey Gardens is a strangely beautiful musical about people who are both strangely beautiful and more than eccentric. In a way, it’s the perfect musical for ion Theatre, which is presenting its Southern California premiere through April 20.
Based on a 1975 cinema verité documentary by the Maysle brothers, Grey Gardens’ second act tells the story of an elderly mother and her middle-aged daughter who are living in squalor in a 28-room mansion in the Hamptons, at the end of Long Island. They are Beales by marriage, but they are Bouviers by birth. Yes, the same Bouvier family that sired Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill, and those cousins came under a fair amount of fire for ignoring their relatives’ condition.
But, that’s Act 2. Act 1 tells the story of how young and beautiful Little Edie (Charlene Koepf) lost her chance to marry a Kennedy in 1941. After a brief prologue, set in 1973 squalor, the stage transforms to the high society Beale home where everyone is setting up for Little Edie’s engagement party. On hand are patrician grandfather, Major Bouvier (Ralph Johnson), cousins Jacqueline (Emma Rasse) and Lee (Lou Rasse), mother Edith Bouvier Beale (Linda Libby), George Gould Strong, her live-in music director (Ruff Yeager), and Brooks, the valet (Kevanne La’Marr Coleman). The guest of honor is Joseph Kennedy (Charles Evans), a Navy pilot about to go off to war, the first-born of the Kennedys, and the one designated for a political career after the war ends (Joe will die in the war, but that’s a different tale).
It doesn’t take much for things to unravel. Little Edie and her mother have different ideas about how the engagement party will go, particularly about Edith’s role in it. Major Bouvier looks upon the preparations and disapproves of much of what he sees. Strong is busy getting drunk, as he does on a daily basis. Brooks maneuvers behind the scenes to keep everything on track and maintain appearances at all cost. Joe finds Little Edie to be beautiful, but he isn’t 100% positive that she would be an appropriate match as a political wife. A couple of developments during the party preparations push Joe over the edge, leaving Edith to greet guests without an engagement to announce.
In Act 2, 32 years later, Edith (now played by Annie Hinton) and Little Edie (now played by Ms. Libby) live in rapidly deteriorating conditions, of which they are seemingly unaware. Their only regular visitors are a young handyman named Jerry (Mr. Evans) who is trying to help the women avoid health department eviction, and Brooks, Jr. (Mr. Coleman), who functions as gardener and who, like his father, keeps up appearances as best he can. Oh yes, the 1941 crowd is still around, only they show up as ghosts to remind the two emotionally enmeshed women of what Grey Gardens once was.
There’s lots of plot (veteran adaptor Doug Wright wrote the book – he also wrote the book for the musical, Hands on a Hardbody, which, too, was based on a documentary film), but there are songs as well. They are sometimes inspired by the Tin Pan Alley tunes that Edith might program in her recitals, but there are also some character songs, and a couple of haunting ballads (“Will You?” and “Another Winter in a Summer Town”). Scott Fankel composed the music, but the real star of this show is Michael Korie’s elegant and clever lyrics.
If you’ve never been to ion, it’s located in a small (50 seat) black box space in Hillcrest. The audience sits on two sides of the stage, and the set has to be shoehorned into the playing space. Productions might not be elaborate but they are typically elegantly directed and the technical elements are superb, given the facilities. Ion regulars tend to adjust expectations, knowing that they’ll see edgy material performed well.
Such is the case with Grey Gardens.[php snippet=1]
Ion Executive Artistic Director Claudio Raygoza keeps getting better and better at figuring out how to use the stage space, and this scenic design is his most clever yet. Karin Filijan’s lighting is appropriately moody, and Erick Sundquist’s costumes have the appropriate period feel and are almost embarrassingly crazy when they need to be. Michael Mizerany is proving himself to be quite the theatrical choreographer, and his work is once again a highlight. It is only practical to have a piano as accompaniment, but this cut corner hurts most. Mr. Yeager sometimes plays the on-stage piano as well, and his doing so helps the musicality of the show enormously.
The cast sings well (Janie Prim served as music director), and they make for a fine ensemble under Kim Strassburger’s detailed direction. Grey Gardens is probably most significant for having not one but two diva roles (for Ms. Libby and Ms. Hinton), and each in her own way has mastered the diva moves required. Ms. Koepf is beautiful and headstrong, Mr. Johnson is so Republican you wonder how all these names came to be associated with Democrats, Mr. Yeager plays the fey drunkard by emphasizing fey over drunkard, Mr. Evans makes a nice transformation from patrician to working class (albeit in a very strange wig), and Mr. Coleman proves to be the sanest of the bunch, as he endures the racist remarks of both eras with quiet dignity.
If you are an ion fan, Grey Gardens will send you to Seventh Heaven. If you are not an ion fan, now might be a good time to try out the company – you may become one.