It’s hard to get over the fact that Grey Gardens: The Musical exists at all.
The 1975 documentary delves intimately into both the lives of the eccentric, fallen aristocrats of “Little Edie” and “Big Edie” Bouvier Beale, the latter the aunt of Jackie Onassis Kennedy, as well as their dilapidated, equally fallen mansion in the Hamptons, Grey Gardens, in a cinéma vérité fashion, something which felt like a distinct, if odd, product of the American New Wave. The film achieved cult status for its memorable turns of phrase and its voyeuristic exploration of both the women’s nostalgia and their cat and raccoon-infested mansion, but it hardly felt like the natural basis of a musical.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, then, the musical adaptation’s formalism (book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie) is particularly striking. Neatly bifurcated into two acts, the first captures the two women prior to their fall and at the height of their wealth, playing up Big Edie’s slightly-delusional preoccupation with her singing as well as planting the contentious seeds of the relationship we see thirty years later in the second act.
Because of this structure, there’s a certain musical-by-numbers feel to the long first half of the play. Taking place in the hours prior to an ill-fated engagement party for Little Edie and a young Joseph Kennedy, Jr. (something which has no real-life basis, although the younger Beale would lay claim to it), much of the commotion in preparing for the party centers on whether Big Edie is deliberately sabotaging her daughter’s courting in an effort to keep her at home, as well as her desire to always be (quite literally) center stage. Act one mostly functions as a way to introduce us to a couple of familiar set piece characters. Thankfully, much of the Trustus-assembled cast shines here. Cody Lovell delivers a slick and striking young Kennedy, with all of the privilege and chauvinistic charm that implies, and Rob Sprankle brings a sly bit of whimsy to the dithering patriarch of the clan, while Kevin Bush hams it up as the wry and withering resident piano player. The butler, played by Samuel McWhite, proves to be an adroit straight man. Too, the young Clare Kerwin (as little Lee) and Ella Rescigno (playing Jackie O as a child) are apt and able, the latter managing a sense of poise that both belies her age and serves as a distinct contrast to the silliness of the adults around her.
For all that, though, the best moments of Act I belong to Haley Sprankle as Little Edie. Showcasing her pure vocal chops and a distinct brogue tempered only by her ability to channel the sort of aristocratic coquettishness that defines her role, much of the joy of the show comes from simply watching her perform, whether dueting with Lovell and the upbeat courtship-cum-ambition tune “Goin’ Places,” locking souls with Mandy Applegate Bloom as Big Edie on “Two Peas in a Pod,” or taking on a stirring, if discomforting, ballad with "Daddy's Little Girl."
Bloom is great, of course, as the middle-aged Big Edie in Act I, but it's when she pivots to playing the older Little Edie in Act II that she sends the play into overdrive. As her voice rings out across the stage with lines cribbed directly from the documentary you would almost swear that the real-life Edie was in the room, so thoroughly did she capture the bizarre inflection and thick accent. Add to that her eerily accurate body language and you have the makings of a star turn as Bloom fully embodies the larger than life cult figure that gave the documentary its longevity.
It helps as well that the second half of the play gets to borrow some of the most memorable bits of dialogue from the film, but Bloom and Caroline Weidner, as the octogenarian Big Edie, (are also adept at bringing to light the swirling realities of nostalgia and the overwrought toxicity that has developed in the two women through the years. They are both great whether singing songs that are stirring, (“Will You?,” “Another Winter in a Summer Town”) or humorous and ribald (“The Revolutionary Costume Today,” “Jerry Likes My Corn”).
By the play's end, director Milena Herring and this Trustus crew have proven that there's something distinctly less peculiar about the idea of a Grey Gardens musical, even if the characters remain both laughably ludicrous and fragile and familiar. Thanks to several star turns and a well-managed production, the way in which the play allows the construct of the genre to toy compellingly with the real-life narrative of the Beale women is understated, yet undeniable.
In other words, a production that offers a nice balance of smart and edgy, makes for an enjoyable night on the town.