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Shades of Grey

PS Classics releases the original Off-Broadway cast recording of Grey Gardens, the Broadway bound musical about the Beales of East Hampton.

By New York City
Whether or not Grey Gardens will fly or flop on Broadway remains to be seen, but the new PS Classics cast album of the show's recent Off-Broadway production at Playwrights Horizons is now available to help each of us make an educated guess. There are conflicting reports as to how extensively the show will be revised before it lands at the Walter Kerr this fall, but the very fact that it was recorded as performed Off-Broadway indicates that the changes probably won't be major.

This is unfortunate if true. The cast album supports the widely held opinion that, although the idea of a Grey Gardens musical was brilliant and there is much to be commended in Scott Frankel's music, Michael Korie's lyrics, and Doug Wright's book, the show's structure is problematic. Critics praised Christine Ebersole's tour-de-force performance so highly that they tended to downplay the flaws of the piece itself, but these flaws become all the more apparent with repeated listening to the CD.

Inspired by the cult classic Maysles brothers documentary film of the same title, Grey Gardens retells the tale of Edith Bouvier Beale and her adult daughter, "Little Edie." Respectively the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, these two became the center of media scrutiny in 1973 when they faced eviction from the squalid, run-down, 28-room mansion in East Hampton where they had been living as virtual recluses for decades. Their story was ripe for musicalization, and Wright, Korie, and Frankel made many wise decisions in terms of song placement, the style of music and lyrics to be employed, etc. But then there are those structural problems...

The most interesting feature of the cast album may be the notes contained in the accompanying booklet, specifically the interview in which the creators discuss the various concepts they floated but ultimately rejected in deciding how to approach the project. "I think we talked about having flashbacks -- but that bored the bejesus out of us," says Korie. "We didn't want flashbacks to work as kind of our own effort at armchair psychology to simplify [these women] in any way," says Wright. Finally, Frankel came up with the idea that Act I of the musical would depict the Beales on a fateful day in 1941, while Act II would show us what had become of them by the early '70s. It was important, the authors felt, to give us a picture of the women in their heyday as popular members of society and plant some clues as to what may have started them down the road to ruin.

All of that is great in theory but, as written, not in practice. The creators miscalculated badly in presenting the chock-a-block events of Act I -- including the Beales' preparation for a musical soirée, the failure of Papa Beale to show up when expected, the efforts of grandpa Bouvier to secure his family's legacy by getting Little Edie married off, and the breakup of the young woman's engagement to Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. -- as occurring in real time within the space of little more than an hour. This simply doesn't work, even if we accept the anti-realistic style of the writing. Indeed, the rejected idea of a series of flashbacks from 1973 to 1941 sounds better, though this would admittedly have been hell to stage.

Whatever. Grey Gardens is what it is, and I suspect that it's not going to change very much. Storytelling issues aside, the Act I section of the cast album is notable for such wonderfully retro songs as the up-tempo opener "The Five Fifteen," the swooningly romantic paean "Body Beautiful Beale," and the lyrical ballad "Will You?" Less satisfactory is the faux-Sondheimian "Daddy's Girl." Act II is far more cohesive from a dramatic standpoint, beginning with Ebersole's bravura performance of Little Edie's "The Revolutionary Costume for Today" and ending with a chilling reprise of the Big Edie/Little Edie duet "Peas in a Pod," first heard during the first act in a very different context. Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations are predictably excellent throughout the score.

Ebersole is just as superb as you've heard, thrillingly morphing from glamorous Big Edie in Act I to loony Little Edie in Act II. Her stunning vocal transformation is all there on the CD, and there are some excellent photos (by Joan Marcus) in the booklet to give you an idea of her equally stunning physical transformation. Sara Gettelfinger and Matt Cavenaugh are winning as Little Edie and Joe Kennedy circa 1941; Cavenaugh returns in 1973 as a kid named Jerry, who serves as a sort of handyman/confidant for the Beales. Mary Louise Wilson doesn't have a whole lot to do as Mama Beale in Act II, but she does it to perfection, and she makes something very special of the pathetically amusing number "Jerry Likes My Corn." The veteran John McMartin is spot-on as "Major" Bouvier in Act I and Norman Vincent Peale (!) in Act II. There are also worthy contributions from Bob Stillman, Michael Potts, Sarah Hyland, and Audrey Twitchell in other roles -- but, in truth, another problem with Grey Gardens is that it has a few too many characters.

PS Classics has given the recording a superb presentation, especially in terms of the deluxe booklet, which contains all of the lyrics plus the aforementioned interview and a synopsis of the plot that makes the storytelling sound more effective than it really is. Despite its significant flaws, Grey Gardens is definitely worth a spin in your CD player.

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[Ed. Note: Christine Ebersole, Mary Louise Wilson, and other members of the original cast of Grey Gardens will be present for a CD signing in the lobby of Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, on Monday, August 28 from 7pm to 8:30pm. Those attending the event may bring pre-purchased copies of the CD or can purchase on site for $20 each, cash only.]


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