As a rule I’m against movies becoming musicals. One need only look at recent productions — Rocky, Spiderman, and Jerry Springer The Musical — to see why this straight to stage shortcut might be a problem. (The fact that playing Spidey resulted in an injury court papers call “unspecified amputations” should give us all pause.) But I’ve been wrong before. Charleston Stage’s production of Legally Blonde: The Musical two years ago was surprisingly light-hearted fun. Village Rep’s 2014 Spamalot — based on the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail — got rave reviews. So it shouldn’t have surprised me that Woolfe Street Playhouse’s in-house theatre troupe, again Village Rep, was entirely equipped to pull off one of the more batty Broadway takes on a cult film — Grey Gardens.
The story is based on the 1975 film of the same name and follows an aristocratic East Hamptons mother and daughter, Big Edie and Little Edie Beale — aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, respectively — as they spiral from high society into madness and poverty. Playing both Big and Little Edie, Becca Anderson is the star of this show. But she goes beyond having the title role on the playbill. Anderson wholly embodies two women who have fascinated fans of the film for years. Which is to say, go for love of the documentary, stay to watch Anderson shine.
Now that’s not to say Anderson doesn’t have help from her supporting cast. Director Keely Enright has done a solid job of cultivating a stable of actors who manage, in the midst of Grey Gardens difficult score, to make the zany storyline work.
In Act I the stage opens on Grey Gardens. Hat tip to Enright and her set construction team of Dave Reinwald and Mark Chesnut for crafting a two-story mansion. Complete with a grand piano, wet bar, and a giant portrait of the patriarch of the home, Phelen Beale, the set makes it easy to buy into the idea of the family’s wealth. Alas the trajectory of the fantasy may be a bit tough to swallow for the documentary fans. Entirely fictionalized, Act I takes snippets from the Edies’ real lives and crafts them into song and dance.
It’s the day of Little Edie’s (Caroline Connell) engagement announcement to Joe Kennedy (yes, the brother of John). While Little Edie is flitting around the house preparing for her party, her mother Big Edie (Becca Anderson) is preparing her performance — a nine song extravaganza she plans to perform in front of the family’s guests. Horrified, Little Edie begs her not to sing, but Big Edie is the ultimate diva. With encouragement from her live-in pianist George Gould Strong (the aptly cast Aaron Hancock), Big Edie is determined her show must go on. The mother and daughter spar but ultimately make up singing a duet, “Peas in a Pod.”
Confident and flirtatious, Connell almost seems too normal to be Little Edie before her subsequent mental tailspin. But what this young actress lacks in wackiness she makes up for in her voice. The woman has some pipes on her and is a pleasure to listen to. Little Edie’s beau Joe, played by Matthew Walker, could have used a Red Bull to up his energy but matched Connell’s strong voice note for note. The couple’s affection for one another wasn’t entirely believable, but their duets were on point.
Act I also introduces us to a childish Jackie O (Eliza Black) and her little sister Lee (Abby Hricik). In what had to be the world’s worst two brunette wigs in Charleston, Jackie and Lee came bounding on stage, hair akimbo. Luckily the girls managed to out dance and sing their distracting headpieces and I look forward to seeing them both develop on local stages.
The act closes with Little Edie receiving a telegram that her father won’t be coming to the engagement party and therefore won’t be there to give Joe his blessing for the marriage. Having witnessed the wackier side of Little Edie’s family and after some choice words with her mother, Joe has second thoughts and, well, if you’ve seen the documentary, you know what comes next.
Act II opens on that famous scene of Little Edie (now Becca Anderson) dressed in what looks like a rejected Project Runway contestant’s knife fight with a UPS uniform. She’s in a brown shirt, brown cap or jacket safety pinned to her waist, pantyhose exposed, and is wearing what appears to be a curtain fashioned into a headpiece. Belting out “The Revolutionary Costume for Today,” this is what you’ve come to see — Anderson dive headfirst into character.
The second act is a series of vignettes taken from Grey Gardens the film. Anderson plays opposite a strong Kathy Summer as Big Edie and costume designer Julie Ziff has nailed their looks. Big Edie shifts from scene to scene in a mumu while Little Edie’s DIY wraps and pumps are excellent copies of the real thing.
But a costume does not a scene make and this show could have been an awful parody were it not for Anderson’s commitment to her characters. The Edies were real people with real problems and with humor and heart she’s captured them both. Even in the midst of her 11 o’clock number, “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” a song about Edie’s desperate need to escape her mother’s clutches, Anderson’s powerful voice magnifies her hopelessness.
It has to be said, Grey Gardens is a bizarre show based on an even more bizarre family and certainly not the first film I’d suggest someone turn into a musical. Thankfully for Village Rep., they found just the woman who could do it, an actress who makes this staging of Grey Gardens a vibrantly colorful night at the theater.