WHATEVER HAPPENED TO LITTLE EDIE? -- GREY GARDENS the musical
A new musical based on GREY GARDENS, the film about a mother and daughter who live in squalor in the titular collapsing mansion in East Hampton has opened. The women are Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also named Edith (they are referred to as Big Edie and Little Edie, respectively). The film is an unscripted snapshot of their lives, as the two women worry over their cats, fight, worry over the city of East Hampton taking legal action to get them out of their cat and raccoon infested crumbling house, and fight. Little Edie is always complaining about the sorry mess her life has become. She wants more than anything (she says) to get away from Grey Gardens and have her own life. There are some epic battles, most of which have clearly been fought and fought and fought any number of times over the years. The film is not to everybody's taste. One good friend says that he thinks the film exploits mental illness, and I've known others who just can't stand all the bitching. The film never answers assorted questions, the most basic of which is quite simply: what the hell is wrong with these two women?
The musical is split into two acts. Act One takes place in 1941, before the big party to announce Little Edie's engagement to Joseph Kennedy, Jr. Act Two is set in 1973, the year of the release of the film, and is based more specifically on the film itself. I personally preferred Act One, as it felt less like some kind of imitation. Christine Ebersole is getting a lot of worshipful attention for ther work as Big Edie in Act One and the now middle-aged Little Edie in Act Two. Elizabeth Wilson does a splendid job as Act Two's Big Edie. The rest of the cast is able enough, especially the actress who plays Young Little Edie in Act One. Her temper tantrums and budding neurosis set a very fine foundation for Ebersole to capitalize on in Act Two.
The score is fine, occasionally memorable. The book, especially in Act Two, hits on all the important bits from the movie, maybe too many of them. Big chunks of dialogue are repeated verbatim, and turned into song lyrics, to the point where I started to feel that some kind of co-author/lyricist credit for the Beales, to say nothing of the creators of the film, is in order. The emotional rollercoaster ride that Act Two's Little Edie takes is sincerely performed, but I couldn't escape the feeling that just a few too many lines and moments were lifted straight from the film, content and context be damned, just to make sure that the fans were satisfied.
There seems to be a cult around the film. I can't decide whether it is the kind of cult that surrounds ERASERHEAD, where people seem to appreciate an underappreciated but interesting and original work of art for its own merits, or the kind of cult that surrounds WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE and MOMMIE DEAREST, where the doings of madwomen are "camp." The musical seems to be trying to have it both ways. They want the show to be a serious examination of the lives of these two women, but they can't resist the temptation to add that most transparent of current Broadway devices: the late second act gospel number.
I'm not the kind of person who demands that adapters maintain absolute fidelity to an original work. I don't really care what they do, as long as it works. The team behind GREY GARDENS manage somehow to hit all the bases. There are moments lifted right from the film that work beautifully, there are moments lifted right from the film that don't work at all, and the same goes for the new material. Most of Act One works beautifully, to my mind, while the big second act number "Entering Grey Gardens" hits bold new lows of sheer theatrical BULLSHIT, as the ghosts of the past (I kid you not) appear wandering around the now-ruined estate. It looks like a community theatre production of Disney's Haunted Mansion. I'd expect something like this in DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES and GOOD VIBRATIONS, to say nothing of CARRIE: THE MUSICAL, but not in a widely respected and well-reviewed piece of musical theatre. I was so appalled by this number that I sat there in shock for much of the rest of the show, dreading what fresh horrors they might have waiting. Mercifully, nothing else quite sank to that level, but there was nothing quite good enough to entirely remove that bad taste from my mouth.