THEATER | “Grey Gardens”: When life hands you duvets, make ponchos

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If you’re a true fan of the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens, you may have some trepidation about seeing the musical version on stage. It can be just as difficult to see beloved icons like the Beales portrayed by someone else as it can to watch a movie adaptation of your favorite novel. You want to have an open mind but…well…what if they get it all wrong?

The Ordway Center and Park Square Theater have joined forces to bring Grey Gardens to St. Paul. The play expands upon the legend of the Bouvier Beale family by dedicating Act I to life at Grey Gardens (the name of their home in East Hampton) in 1941. The second act, set in 1973, brings us into the world we know from the film, when Big and Little Edie are living in the now dilapidated 28-room mansion alone save for some 50 cats and an unknown number of raccoons.

The two acts function as day and night. In the first, Big Edie and her daughter Little Edie are still young, thin, rich, and social. It’s the day of the engagement party for Little Edie and Joe Kennedy Jr., and the house is filled with family, including Jackie and Lee Bouvier on a summer visit to their aunt and cousin. The songs are light and comical in tone, but they foreshadow a coming change of fortune.

grey gardens, a musical by douglas wright (book) and scott frankel and michael korie (music and lyrics); directed by james a. rocco and jayme mcdaniel. presented through may 17 at the ordway center for the performing arts, 345 washington st., st. paul. for tickets ($40-$45) and information, see ordway.org.

Amidst the hustle of party preparations, Big Edie and her accompanist/companion Mr. Gould work on the songs she wants to perform. She’s convinced her guests won’t be happy unless she sings at least nine songs. Little Edie doesn’t want her to sing and, in the ensuing arguments, Mr. Bouvier (Big Edie’s father, played to blustery perfection by Richard Ooms) demands that his daughter not act a fool and face the fact that her husband, Mr. Beale, is a philanderer who keeps an apartment in the city so he can entertain girlfriends.

In her anger and jealousy, Big Edie ultimately drives Joe Kennedy away and Little Edie, unable to comprehend her mother’s cruelty, leaves, vowing never to return to Grey Gardens.

Even as she’s shouting it, we know better than to believe her.

Act Two descends into darkness. Wacky darkness, to be sure, but something vastly different that Act I. There are sliding curtains, flashing images, voices calling to one another through the darkness of the mostly empty house. It is despair peppered with lunacy. At times the production takes on the feel of a vaudeville act as Little Edie prances about in her “revolutionary costumes” (think skirts worn upside down, sweaters as scarves fastened under the chin with brooches, cardigans on backwards) singing songs with the “ghosts” of family members long since fled.

Christina Baldwin, playing the role of Big Edie in the first act and Little Edie in the second, owns both parts, but it is as Little Edie that she reaches out and captures the audience. In the documentary, the magic happens when it’s Little Edie and the camera. Here, it’s all about Little Edie and her audience and Baldwin is kinetic from the first moment she steps out the screen door and starts singing “The Revolutionary Costume.” When she finished singing, I wished that I could raise my hand and ask her to do it again.

Wendy Lehr is spot-on in her portrayal of Big Edie, and the two of them bicker, cajole and insult each other until it starts to make one a bit queasy. Can’t they just get along? And clean things up a little? But despite the odd living arrangements, it’s a faithful rendering of a love/hate relationship in which Little Edie claims she’s trapped at Grey Gardens and Big Edie points out that Little Edie never wanted anything when she could have had it—this goes for men as well as the opportunity to model gloves.

The best songs of the production are in Act II. In addition to “The Revolutionary Costume” there’s the hilarious “Jerry Loves My Corn” (performed brilliantly by Lehr), the haunting “Around the World,” and the lump-in-throat-inducing “Another Winter In a Summer Town.”

In the documentary Grey Gardens, there are scenes in which Little Edie is comical, angry, paranoid, and resentful. But the film never quite drills all the way down to her sadness and despair, leaving the raccoons, holes in the ceilings, and canned-good dinners to fill in the blanks. This approach gives us room to form our own impressions. Watching the Beales on film, I’m never sure if I should be laughing or crying. While a fictionalized account of real people’s lives will always involve some conjecture, the musical version of Grey Gardens allows Little Edie (and us) to more fully explore regret and its faithful companion, sadness. It brings us to Grey Gardens all over again, but in a new way, once again blurring the line between the present and the past.

Rebecca Collins is a writer and thing-maker who lives in South Minneapolis. She is also the communications coordinator for the Minnesota Film and TV Board and edits the blog MNDialog.

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