Lisa Horner and Nicola Lipman give memorable performances in the musical version of the Maysles Brothers’ classic documentary.
A wizened old lady, half-dressed, lies propped up in bed, long grey hair streaming from under a big, floppy sun hat. As she tends a boiling pot on a hot plate next to her, she sings cheerfully, “Jerry Likes My Corn.” Welcome to Grey Gardens, the musical—without doubt one of the strangest stories to get a Broadway song-and-dance treatment.
The original Grey Gardens, of course, was a haunting 1976 documentary film by the Maysles Brothers that captured the squalid, squabbling lives of two unlikely cat ladies: Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith (hence “Big Edie” and “Little Edie”). The pair is the aunt and cousin, respectively, of Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Although born into the American upper class, misfortune and mental illness reduced them to impoverished eccentrics, living in a dirty, crumbling Long Island mansion with, as the musical puts it, “52 stray cats and a few rabid raccoons”—not to mention a horde of phantoms from their gilded past.
Looking past the felines, the filth, and the fleas, the Maysles discovered a powerful mother-daughter drama involving thwarted dreams, festering resentment, and pathetic delusions. It would have been the stuff of a Tennessee Williams tragedy, except that Big Edie and Little Edie were so funny. Their life together was a tragicomedy, more a Samuel Beckett play than a Williams one, with Little Edie, 56, continually threatening to leave her septuagenarian mother and pursue an imagined showbiz career but never making it past the front gate.
A strange story for a musical, perhaps, but not inappropriate, given that Big Edie was an amateur singer in her younger days, and Little Edie was a born ham who happily sang, danced, and preened before the Maysles’ camera. Thirty years after the film’s release, the musical version had its premiere in New York and went on to win three Tony Awards. Now, a decade later, it’s finally getting a professional production in Toronto from the ever-adventurous Acting Up Stage Company.
So, is it any good? Well, consider that two of those three Tonys went to actresses Christine Ebersole, who played Little Edie, and Mary Louise Wilson, who played Big Edie (the third award was for the costume design). In other words, it’s got a couple of great leading roles, filled in the Acting Up Stage production by that ace scenery chewer Lisa Horner (the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, Madame Thenardier in Les Misérables) and seasoned character actress Nicola Lipman. Horner is fabulous, Lipman endearing, and both will likely be in the running for Toronto’s Doras. But as an overall work of musical theatre, Grey Gardens leaves something to be desired.
The musical’s book, by Doug Wright, begins with a fictional first act, set in 1941 at the then-splendid Grey Gardens, the Beales’ summer home in East Hampton. Socialite Big Edie (Horner) is throwing a party to celebrate the engagement of her daughter Little Edie (a flame-haired, big-voiced Kira Guloien) to Joe Kennedy, Jr. (an upstanding Jeff Lillico), but all is not well. Daughter is quarreling with mother over the latter’s insistence on turning the party into a showcase for her own talent—Big Edie plans to favour the guests with nine songs during the evening, accompanied by her personal composer and boogie-woogie pianist, George Gould Strong (a discreetly gay Tim Funnell). Meanwhile, Phelan Beale, the family’s philandering patriarch has yet to arrive, young visiting cousins Jackie (Amariah Faulkner) and Lee (Hannah Levinson) are getting underfoot, and granddad Major Bouvier (a crusty Victor A. Young) is dispensing marital advice.
It’s clear we’re being set up for a disastrous outcome that will have a lingering effect on the Edies’ relationship. There’s plenty of foreshadowing, including hints of the pair’s future financial woes. But there’s also a lot of filler, and the songs and repartee aren’t good enough to keep us diverted. You feel like you’re watching a second-rate imitation of The Philadelphia Story. And it’s not clear why composers Scott Frankel and Michael Korie felt the need to give Big Edie a couple of racist numbers for her repertoire—to remind us that such embarrassing fare was popular in the 1940s? On top of which, their mock-minstrel show toe-tapper, “Hominy Grits,” isn’t even as catchy as a real minstrel song.
Not surprisingly, Act 2, which takes us forward to 1973, when the Maysles shot their film, is much better. Now the Edies have been living together for two decades in a dilapidated, cat-infested Grey Gardens, described in one song as “a 28-room litter box,” where their only regular visitors are the bemused gardener Brooks (Matthew Brown) and Jerry, a callow youth who does odd jobs (Lillico again, now in aw-shucks mode). The audience, meanwhile, stands in for the film crew, as Little Edie (now played by Horner) addresses us while showing off her famously idiosyncratic fashion sense—the girl knows how to rock a headscarf. Where Little Edie is always swathing her lumpy body in leopard-print or mink, her sagging mother is in a perpetual state of semi-undress, her most prominent accessory being that goofy, red-and-white-striped sun hat. (Alex Amini had the fun job of designing the costumes.)
Wright plays off the original scenes and dialogue in the film, and Frankel and Korie’s songwriting becomes more quirkily inspired, with tunes like “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” “The Cake I Had,” and—yes—”Jerry Likes My Corn.” This last number is a kooky delight, sung with deceptive simplicity by Lipman’s Big Edie as both an affectionate ode to their teenage handyman and another dig at her daughter’s inadequacies.
Wright and director Ann Hodges take their cue from Little Edie’s remark that it’s “difficult to keep the line between the past and present”; they fill the nooks and crannies of Grey Gardens with ghosts from Act 1, who also double as the ubiquitous cats. Camellia Koo’s set, dominated by a two-storey staircase, sketches in the show’s titular mansion, suggesting a stylish living room complete with piano in Act 1 and Big Edie’s dingy, debris-cluttered bedroom in the second half. (The show’s five-piece band, led by Shelley Hanson, lurks under the stairs.)
Although much of the Grey Gardens musical is funny and absurd, the poignancy slowly accrues until the moving final scenes, when Little Edie packs her bags and Horner sings, with quiet despair, “Another Winter in a Summer Town.” In the film we pity Little Edie, whose inertia seems a symptom of her mental illness; but here, we sense the agony of someone who hides in a yesterday, imaginary or not, to avoid facing the ugly truth of today. And her reluctance to leave home—after a brief period trying to make it in New York, she returned to live with her mother at Grey Gardens in 1952 and remained until after Big Edie’s death in 1977—is more relatable now than ever. Could it be that Little Edie was the original “failure to launch” kid?