Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts concludes its 2015 Mainstage season with a beautiful, powerhouse production of Grey Gardens The Musical, written by Doug Wright with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics Michael Korie.
Grey Gardens is based on the true story of “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” Beale, former socialites whose glamorous lives degenerated into squalor, as they became recluses in their dilapidated East Hampton estate. Their remarkable and sad story was made famous by a 1975 documentary directed by Albert and David Maysles that followed the two eccentric women in their everyday lives, as well as a well-received HBO film. The riveting show, which takes audiences on a journey that begins as a Technicolor fantasy and ends as a bleak, stark slice of life, is not to be missed.
In the 1940s-set Act I, Grey Gardens is bursting with energy, thanks to the larger-than-life Edith Beale, played by the talented Rachel York. Edith and her best friend/piano accompanist George Gould Strong (Howard McGillin) are preparing to sing at Little Edie’s (Sarah Hunt) engagement party to Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (Matt Doyle), and Little Edie is rightfully concerned that her mother’s eccentric ways will scare off the more traditional Kennedy family. Edith, desperate to keep her world from changing and ending up alone, plants seeds of doubt in Joseph’s mind about Edie, causing him to leave right before the party. This incident sets in motion a series of events that leads to the 1970s-set Act II, which follows the Beale women as they live in the ruins of their former glory.
Act I tells a fictional story—Little Edie was never actually engaged to Kennedy—that conveniently sets up the central toxic relationship between the two women. The intentional melodrama feels like a tale Little Edie might tell. The second act deftly adapts the documentary for the stage, showing Little Edie, now played by York, living in filth with Big Edie, played by Betty Buckley.
Together, York and Buckley are a gangbusters pair with crackling chemistry. Hunt gives a powerful and intense performance as Young Little Edie, delivering the showstopping “Daddy’s Girl” with a volatility that foreshadows the character’s eventual descent from debutante to outcast. McGillin and Doyle are also standouts in the supporting roles; Doyle is particularly impressive, playing the straight-laced Joseph Kennedy in Act I and the sweet, misguided street kid Jerry Torre in Act II. The songs by Frankel and Korie are at once witty and haunting, airy and powerful. “The Five-Fifteen,” the first big production number, is a high-energy musical theater romp, while the aforementioned “Daddy’s Girl” is dark and unsettling. Buckley delivers a standout performance in “Jerry Likes My Corn,” a funny but poignant song about companionship. And York nails the show’s final (and best) song, “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” conveying the pain and loneliness of a woman whose life has been filled with disappointment and isolation.
The creative team should be applauded for their meticulous attention to detail. Director Michael Wilson and the rest of the production team have crafted a stunning world for the characters to inhabit. Wilson wisely distinguishes the two acts, with madcap, Golden Age-style direction for Act I, while Act II is understated and painfully real. The clever set by Jeff Cowie utilizes the entire theater, making for an immersive experience as characters run up the aisles, enter and exit at different spots. And Ilona Somogyi has designed magnificent costumes for the show, from Big Edie’s beautiful yellow gown in Act I to Little Edie’s signature “revolutionary costume of the day” from the documentary in the second half.
Grey Gardens The Musical is a great closer to Bay Street’s 2015 season. East Enders will appreciate the fact that this is production of Grey Gardens is physically the closest to the titular East Hampton estate, made all the more special since the documentary turns 40 in September. An often hilarious but ultimately sad tale of broken dreams and lost hope, Grey Gardens will linger in audiences’ minds long after the final curtain.
Grey Gardens The Musical runs through August 30 at Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts, located at 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor. For tickets and more information, call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.