Friday, February 23, 2007

I have to think these things up

Saw Grey Gardens last night, at last, and to borrow a lyric from Sondheim, I sort of enjoyed it. The show has all the building blocks of a great musical, and moment-to-moment it's very entertaining, but the elements never add up to anything truly masterful. In the end, it is a very amusing riff on the documentary, but not a satisfying exploration of the questions that the movie raises, nor a well-made, stand-alone dramatic work.

Act One, which depicts the Edies and their East Hampton home as they were in 1941, starts out fidgety and takes at least half an hour to settle down. It is in constant motion, too eager to be liked, and far too focused on telegraphing Gould's homosexuality and making cute Jackie Kennedy jokes. It doesn't really make sense that the future Jackie O. and Lee Radziwill should be skipping across the entire first act, but they are ever-present anyway, so that what should have been, at most, a one-line joke becomes a constant distraction. (Nothing against the girls, who are fine, but there's no reason for this show to have children in it, and their wide-eyed "Broadway Kids" polish and poise does grate.) And I agree with Doug Wright et al. that George Gould Strong was probably an interesting fellow, but they need to make him a real part of the drama or else get him off the stage, because he doesn't justify his own prominence here. (It feels like Wright couldn't resist making himself a character in this show too, since he didn't get called out on the laziness of that move in I Am My Own Wife.) The whole thing doesn't settle down until John McMartin comes on the scene, with his calming influence and authority, and he and Christine Ebersole manage to have an entire conversation uninterrupted by a pastiche number. I should say that composer Scott Frankel's musical pastiche is spot-on, and part of my annoyance with the nonstop music in Act One stemmed from the fact that I was sitting in the second row, right next to the orchestra pit, and had to strain throughout to hear the actors over the music. So I was relieved whenever the orchestra cut out, even for a moment. But the first-act songs, excellent though they are, don't do much heavy-lifting, plotwise, and they don't leave a lot of room for the characters to assert themselves and make me care about what will happen to them. A few more non-fluttery scripted exchanges might help.

Lyricist Michael Korie has done generally good work, but he has regrettably not been quite as careful as his songwriting partner when it comes to evoking the period. I don't mean to be a total killjoy, but would a young man in 1941 really say he was going to "kick butt" in World War II? Were Americans already using the term "poofter"? If "Peas in a Pod" was the first song Edie learned as a child, making it presumably at least 10 years old in 1941, then how could it contain a reference to the comedy team of Crosby and Hope, who didn't even meet till 1932? And Edie's exhortation that her mother "save [the arias she planned to sing] for the shower" made me wonder, Who took showers in 1941? All that may sound excessively nitpicky, but keep in mind, I haven't seen the lyrics written out; those are just the things that distracted me while I was watching the show. And even if I'm wrong about every one of those examples -- even if, for example, there are cited instances of well-bred 1940s GIs pledging to "kick butt" overseas -- there's no excusing the sloppiness of the lyrics to "The Telegram." That song is meant to be the first act's emotional climax, and while I'm willing to suspend disbelief and pretend that a telegram might actually be that long, and go into that much detail, the least you can do is put the "stop"s in the correct places. Like at the ends of sentences. (Stop.)

Part of the trouble with Act One may be that everyone, even the creators, considers it primarily a prelude to Act Two, where the real fun starts. But it's worth lingering over Act One long enough to praise a few performances. Christine Ebersole is terrific from the start, and she perfectly evokes the early 20th-century songbird soprano. When she reemerges in Act Two as the grown Little Edie, singing in a completely different style, you realize what a terrific artist she is. But let's not overlook Erin Davie, setting the stage as "Young 'Little Edie'" in Act One. She sang, and handled that accent, beautifully, and made me believe in the debutante Edie once was as well as the psychopath she would eventually become.

Act Two is when the Beales we all know and love (or, perhaps, fear) take over, and the show becomes more sure of itself. But the creators don't seem sure what story they're trying to tell; they're riffing on the movie, but missing opportunities to go deeper than the film could, and so the stage show recreates the movie's static-ness (which I think it's trying to avoid), but not the movie's dark atmosphere (which I think it needs). The trouble starts right away with the act's opening song ("The Revolutionary Costume for Today"), which isn't bad, as songs go, but which is totally wrong for the moment and the character. Little Edie shouldn't be singing a comedy number about what she's wearing; she doesn't have enough self-awareness or presence of mind to talk about her own style that way. I don't think she knows she's wearing a cord from the drapes. She thinks she's looking grand. So a sequence that was fascinating, even a bit frightening, in the movie becomes merely silly onstage. Little Edie is an arresting persona in the film because she takes herself completely seriously, in spite of her total disconnect with reality. Ebersole brings that commitment and intensity to her performance, and you can feel it between verses, when she's delivering lines from the movie. But her attempt to establish the character is undermined by the song, and the scene sets the wrong tone. Eventually there is a scene-setting number, "Entering Grey Gardens," that tries to capture some of the haunting quality of the film, but it's too little, too late.

That first scene ends with Edie observing, as she does in the film, "It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present." In this script it's almost a throwaway line, and I can't help thinking that a song devoted to unpacking that idea would have done a lot more to set up the character. But rather than asking, "What songs do we need to tell this story?" the creators seem to have approached Act Two by asking themselves, "What moments in the movie might be fun to turn into songs?" Hence numbers like "Jerry Likes My Corn." They're all individually quite good, and very entertaining as a gloss on the movie, but they don't add up to anything special. The whole second act feels like a drag queen routine, rather than a musical drama.

Cast members from Act One show up again in Act Two, playing ghosts of some sort, but their reappearance doesn't feel dramatically necessary or meaningful so much as convenient. Doug Wright misses the chance to do something interesting with Jerry, the women's mysterious young handyman/companion; you'd think he would try to flesh that character out, but you would be wrong. (And it doesn't help that Matt Cavenaugh -- whom you'd probably recognize from this -- though fine as Joe Kennedy in Act One, is embarrassingly bad as Jerry in Act Two.) There are also a number of projections and fancy lighting effects to set the mood during Act Two; most of these look awful, at least from the second row, and the projected cats just call attention to the fact that there aren't any real cats onstage.

(And speaking of my second-row seat -- it was nice to be so close to the action, for a change, and to be able to actually see the actors' facial expressions. But my view of the cinematic tableaux that open and close the show was, you guessed it, restricted! A girl can't win.)

There are plenty of good, even great, moments in Act Two. Christine Ebersole is justifiably lauded for her performance, but she is matched by an equally committed Mary Louise Wilson, and together they achieve a level of naturalism rarely seen on the musical stage. They recreate the movie's overlapping dialogue, and the women's constant bickering, impeccably, and Wright's script captures the way the two women go back and forth without ever really listening to each other. I wish every show could have a scene as funny and fascinating as the Act Two reprise of "Will You?" (And, for that matter, I wish every musical could have a song as lovely as "Will You?") But I didn't buy the ending; nothing in the movie led me to believe that Edie could come that close to independence, and nothing in the stage show suggested it, either. So I left feeling unsatisfied; I certainly got my money's worth, entertainment-wise, and I went home singing several of the songs, so I suppose I can say I ate the cake I had. But the story's tragic potential went largely untapped, and it's hard not to be wistful when I think how much better Grey Gardens could have been.

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