GREY GARDENS * Book by Doug Wright * Music by Scott Frankel * Lyrics by Michael Korie * Musical staging by Jeff Calhoun * Directed by Michael Greif * Starring Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson * Playwrights Horizons, New York City, through April 26.

You might think that the musical version of Grey Gardens, the 1975 cult favorite documentary by the Maysles Brothers about Jackie Kennedy’s eccentric aunt and cousin, would be a campy chamber piece about two wacky dames knocking around a dilapidated Long Island mansion. And there’s some of that in the second act, which sticks closely to the movie’s portrayal of former aristocrats reduced to squalor and acrid nostalgia. But this is a full-scale Broadway-style musical whose first act focuses on Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter “Little” Edie on the afternoon in 1941 that all of Easthampton society is scheduled to arrive for the announcement of Edie’s engagement to Joseph Kennedy, Jr. – the day it all comes crashing down. Scott Frankel and Michael Korie’s score has a few sophisticated set-pieces (superbly staged by Jeff Calhoun), a lot of generic stuff, some real clunkers, and at least two ballads that are destined to enter the cabaret-pop pantheon, “Will You?” and “Another Winter in a Summer Town.” But the real reason to see Grey Gardens is to worship at the feet of Christine Ebersole, an always-terrific actress and singer who gives a staggering performance. In act one, she plays the mother, an aging beauty with a failed singing career, a daughter she love-hates (charmless Sara Gettelfinger) a straying husband, and a gay sidekick (Bob Stillman, who’s excellent) – Amanda Wingfield meets Mama Rose, as played by Bette Davis and/or Lucille Ball. In act two, set 32 years later she eerily transforms into the Little Edie we know from the movie, with her insane outfits and stream-of-consciousness monologues. She and the great Mary Louise Wilson as bed-ridden but still domineering Big Edie are suitably hilarious/pathetic while preserving the mystery of a mother-daughter bond that nurtures and suffocates them both.

The Advocate, April 11, 2006