Book by Doug Wright – Music by Scott Frankel – Lyrics by Michael Korie
Australian Premiere Season presented by The Production Company,
The Playhouse – The Arts Centre – Melbourne
24th November – 4th December
Reviewed by Bill Stephens
Nancye Hayes and Pamela Rabe as Edith Bouvier Beale and 'Little" Edie Beale
The real life story of two elderly recluses, Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, ‘Little’ Edie Beale, the cousins of Jacqueline Bouvier-Kennedy-Onassis, who were discovered living alone in squalor in a rundown, sprawling mansion known as “Grey Gardens” in East Hampton, Long Island, New York, may seem an unlikely choice of subject for a musical, but the writers and composer of “Grey Gardens” have used this event and its outcome as a premise to create an extraordinarily compelling musical, which is currently being given its Australian premiere by The Production Company, for a short season in Melbourne.
The musical commences with a prologue, set in 1973, during which we meet the two Edie’s as they were when discovered living in the derelict “Grey Gardens”. Nancye Hayes, dressed in one-piece bathers and a housecoat, plays the older of the two women, while Pamela Rabe, as the young Edie, models an ensemble which appears to be fashioned from old cardigans and skirts. Their situation and tenuous grip on reality is deftly established with the song “The Girl Who Has Everything”.
The prologue dissolves into 1941 when “Grey Gardens” is in its prime, and we again meet mother and daughter, this time, preparing for a party to announce the engagement of ‘Little’ Edie to Joseph Kennedy Jnr. Interestingly, in this act, Pamela Rabe plays the older Edie, Edith Bouvier Beale, while the young ‘Little’ Edie is played by Liz Styles.
As preparations for the party continue, we learn that Edith Bouvier Beale has a passion for singing at her own parties, and that she also involves her daughter ‘Little’ Edie in these entertainments. However at tonight’s party ‘Little’ Edie is reluctant to have her mother sing, so as not to deflect the spotlight from her on this special day.
During the preparations we meet George Gould Strong (James Millar) , a live-in musician apparently maintained by the older Edie, as a permanent accompanist, ‘Little’ Edie’s fiancée, Joseph Kennedy Jnr (Alex Rathgeber) and Edith Bouvier Beale’s irascible father Major Bouvier (John O’May). We also meet ‘little’ Edie’s two cousins, Jacqueline Bouvier (Ariel Kaplan) and Lee Bouvier (Lucy-Rose Coyne) and the butler, Brooks Snr,(Bert LaBonte).
By the end of the first act, following a series of spiteful exchanges between mother and daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale is being divorced by her husband, and her daughter ‘Little’ Edie has run off to New York after discovering that her mother has manipulated an end to her hopes of becoming the wife of Joe Kennedy, leaving Edith Bouvier Beale alone to entertain the guests at what should have been her daughter’s engagement party.
In the first act, Pamela Rabe as Edith Bouvier Beale, wears a series of lovely costumes, and exudes an air of confident elegance, to convincingly convey the desperation of a woman aware that her world is disintegrating around her, but willing to risk everything, including her daughter’s happiness, to preserve the status quo.
The second act is set in 1973, and by now Grey Gardens is derelict and being lived in by Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter ‘Little’ Edie, who, at her mother’s insistence, has returned from New York. They now live a reclusive existence, surrounded by feral cats and garbage. Their only visitors are a young man who delivers their weekly groceries; the son of their butler, Brooks Jnr; and occasional council officials trying to evict them.
For this act, Nancye Hayes resumes the role of the elderly Edith Bouvier Beale, first seen in the prologue, and in a remarkably brave performance, draws on her considerable talents as a dramatic actress to produce a performance that will long live in my memory for the truth, honesty and accuracy of her portrayal.
Pamela Rabe returns to playing the pathetic, now much older, ‘Little’ Edie Beale, caring for her manipulative old mother. Ignoring the filth around her, she wraps herself in a series of bizarre outfits in an attempt to maintain some sort of dream world. This role switch is astonishingly effective.
Avoiding any temptation to play these characters for laughs, although there are plenty of laughs to be had, both Pamela Rabe and Nancye Hayes give riveting, perfectly pitched performances, which invest their characters with a complexity and dignity that reveals them as poignant, believable and thoroughly memorable human beings.
Not many musicals come to mind which offer such strong dramatic central roles, and it was exciting to see artists of the calibre of Rabe and Hayes bringing their considerable talents to bear in interpreting these roles. bHowever director Roger Hodgman has left nothing to chance and has drawn together an outstanding ensemble of experienced music theatre performers to compliment the central performances.
James Millar brings dignity and gravitas to his role as the enigmatic pianist George Gould Strong. Alex Rathgeber plays two characters, and impresses with his ability to bring interesting nuances to both Joseph Kennedy in the first act, and the opportunist delivery boy, Jerry, in the second.
John O’May, also portraying different characters in each act, brings a great deal of natural charm to his portrayal of the curmudgeonly ‘Major” Bouvier.
In a stylish interpretation of the young ‘little’ Edie Beale in the first act, Liz Stiles sings with appealing vivacity and warmth, while both Ariel Kaplin and Lucy-Rose Coyne are delightfully natural as the Bouvier sisters, Jacqueline and Lee.
The quality of the singing throughout was another of the many pleasures of this production.
The Production Company famously produce their shows within a very short rehearsal period. Director, Roger Hodgman, has risen to the challenge of this restriction by applying his considerable expertise to devising a polished, uncluttered production which includes many delightful touches, including one sequence in which the ensemble become remarkably believable cats.
The attractive setting, designed by Richard Roberts, provides an uncluttered environment for the action, allowing ample room for Dana Jolly’s well- crafted dances, and providing for quick, smartly accomplished scene changes.
Kellie Dickerson’s excellent, and surprisingly unobtrusive, orchestra is placed onstage in full view of the audience, flanked on one side by a doorway, and on the other by a staircase. A few essential pieces of furniture, some excellent visuals projected onto a scrim, and a sensitive lighting plot by Matt Scott, where all that were necessary to insure that the audience focus was exactly where Roger Hodgman meant it to be...on his talented cast.
However, despite the fascination of the characters, and the excellence of the production, there could be no happy ending for this show, and the production did seem to drag a little as it moved towards its inevitable conclusion. This however was more a problem in the writing rather than either the direction or the acting.
The Production Company is to be congratulated for its initiative in providing Australian audiences with the opportunity to experience this challenging, and extraordinarily moving piece of contemporary musical theatre.