Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens
Music: Scott Frankell, Lyrics: Michael Korie, Book: Doug Wright. The Production Company. Playhouse, the Arts Centre (Vic). November 24 – December 4, 2011.

Let us give thanks to the Theatre Gods for Jeanne Pratt, Chairman of the The Production Company, for being brave enough to bring to Melbourne many offerings, Grey Gardens being one, that larger commercial companies do not even have on their radar.

There cannot be anyone in the U.S.A who does not know the story of the love/hate co-dependent relationship between mother and daughter Edith Bouvier Beale and little Edie, cousins to the iconic Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. The brilliant 1975 documentary and subsequent HBO movie have reached iconic status. We may be less familiar with their story in Melbourne, but that doesn’t matter. History has given us two characters that are stranger than fiction and larger than life. They are both frightening and adorable in equal measure.

This production shows both weaknesses and strengths to a first night audience that has only the non-musical versions of the story to draw from. And if it’s true that you see a different show depending on what part of the auditorium you sit in, then the back of the dress circle is not the place to see Grey Gardens, whose second act in particular requires a strong intimate connection with the audience.

Act 1 is backstory, taking place in 1941. It’s part hommage to the Kennedys, featuring Jackie Bouvier as a young girl, and part pastiche of the era. It’s also an excuse to have the lead actress play Edith senior in Act One and daughter  Little Edie in Act Two. The songs, lightweight and foot-tapping, but often witty,  have a slightly camp feel and are mostly forgettable, even though they owe more than a little to the likes of Cole Porter and Noel Coward. The book has some great one-liners, but ultimately doesn’t delve deeply into character.

The set is a pared down version of a lavish (sic) drawing room in The Hamptons. For me, the one door made for annoying exits and entrances. The biggest production problem however, is the choice to have the orchestra on stage and fully lit behind a light scrim, for the duration. The constant movement of the percussionist, and Musical Director Kellie Dickerson’s dis-embodied left hand forever in view, consistently pulled focus from the action on the stage, and broke the suspension of disbelief.

 

Performances were all fine, with honours going to Pamela Rabe, naturally, as Edith Beale – a selfish spoiled elitist without self awareness, totally prepared to destroy her daughter’s life. Liz Stiles, as young Edie, was delightfully full of life and her pretty soprano voice more than held its own in her duet with Ms Rabe, “Peas in a pod.” John O’May as the Bouvier grandfather, has lost none of the charisma which has made him a musical theatre legend, and his one number in the first act, “Marry Well” is a highlight and a delicious reminder of the customs and traditions of the time. Whether it was a fault of Playhouse acoustics or sound design, the sound was low throughout the first act, so much so that many of the audience were still talking through the first part of the prologue. Inevitably that had an impact on energy levels and, by the interval, many of the people around me were tentative with their praise. I myself was yearning for the magic that only great musical theatre can provide.

But if Act One was an entrée of snack size proportions, Act Two was a massive degustation feast. A “Duet for Divas”, it took the limpid first act and ground it into the mire that the house and gardens had become in the ensuing 32 years. What a privilege to see two extraordinary performers capture an entire audience in their spell. Yes there was magic by the bucket load. No white rabbits, but even the sound effects of the 50 cats we couldn’t see made us hold our breath and believe every second. The book suddenly springs to life, largely because much of it is taken from the two Edie’s actual exchanges in the documentary. It is so naturalistic that you believe you’re there in the room. “Don’t sing like that” mother tells daughter, “You sound like a Czechoslavakian.”

Ms Rabe (I am too awestruck to use the name Pamela) is transformed into Young Edie, and the performance is much more a progression of Liz Stiles first act character, than another version of the older Edie. She is at once the 56-year-old eccentric and the emotionally scarred 15 year old child. She owns the stage, and the audience. Her opening number “The Revolutionary Costume For Today” (arguably the show’s best) is funny, commanding and poignant in equal measure and Ms Rabe relished every second. She WAS Little Edie, and by the time she reached the slightly kitsch ballad “Around the World”, this audience member and my writer companion, were both in tears for the bravura performance and the life wasted. I have seen many clips of the great Christine Ebersole, but Ms Rabe could give her masterclasses. It is one of the greatest performances I have seen in over 50 years of musical theatre in Australia.

And then there’s Nancye Hayes, the consummate performer, the one person who could upstage Ms Rabe if she chose too…. but she has far too much class for that. Her old Edie, demented and living in her fantasies, but still blissfully unaware of her inner monster, is beautifully measured and reminds us that a great performer, like a great wine, only gets better with age.

Roger Hodgman’s direction sensibly allows the divas to do what they do, but fails to cover the first act inadequacies. The orchestra is exceptional throughout and supporting cast not mentioned all rise to the occasion. But it’s Nancye and Pamela (there I said it) who give us their all, and create the magic for us.

Coral Drouyn

Photographer: Jeff Busby

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And Peter Kemp's review.

The Production Company’s final show for 2011 was the Australian Premiere of Grey Gardens,a musical based on the true story of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter ‘Little’ Edie Beale. Edith Bouvier Beale was the aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Grey Gardens is the name of the Beale mansion in the Hamptons, 175 Kilometres north of New York. Set in its heyday the mansion, a 28 room building, was the heart of social life and any successful parties were held there. But later mother and daughter lost their money and lived in squalor while Grey Gardens slowly disintegrated around them.

The opening was a scrim with a photo of the mansion at its best and then changed to the mansion at its worst. When the scrim flew out there was the mansion with the front cutaway in is prime.

In Act 1 Pamela Rabe played the mother Edith Bouvier Beale. And in Act 2 the mother was played by Nancye Hayes with Pamela Rabe as ‘Little’ Edie Beale.

Pamela Rabe was magnificent in both roles. She captured the essence of each character with finesse, has positive stage appearance giving reality to the characters. Act 2 saw Nancye Hayes play Edith Bouvier Beale with a great portrayal and a wonderful rapport with Pamela Rabe.

Act 1 saw Liz Stiles as young ‘Little’ Edie Beale. Her engagement party was planned for that afternoon and her mother was doing all the arrangements much against ‘little’ Edie’s wishes.  Liz Sales caught the correct feeling of the role of ‘Little’ Edie projecting well and a good rapport with the other members of the cast.

Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Bouvier who grew up to be Jackie Kennedy Onassis was played by Ariel Kaplan, a young actor with a great future and seeing her perform one knows that Melbourne theatre’s future is in hand.

Opening night saw Caitlin Vippond play Jackie’s sister Lee Bouvier. Another young actor destined for a good future on the stage. Her performance was excellent and the two young ladies together added to the strength of the evening.

John O’May was Major Bouvier & Norman Vincent Peale. In both roles O’May showed his excellent versatility as an actor changing from the different characters with ease.

Alex Rathgeber was Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr & Jerry. Another competent performer capturing both roles with ease.

Other performers were Bert LaBonte as Brooks Sr and Brooks Jnr with James Millar as George Gould Strong. Both performers added to the high standar4d of the production with their performances.

A challenge for the director and company and successfully done.

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