In concept, Grey Gardens The Musical, about two women who (seemingly) had it all and then lost it, resonates with meaning, especially if you’re a woman. For one thing, it’s a mother-daughter story, of which, unfairly, there are far fewer than father-son. For another, it’s a story about age and aging, and what can happen to a bright, vivacious person if she lives long enough. And finally, it’s a story about wanting to escape one’s roots and live vitally in the world, and the disabling effects of disappointment when that yearning fails to materialize.
If all that weren’t enough, the book, written by Doug Wright, with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, is based on a documentary film by the Maysles brothers, and concerns the true events in the privileged lives of Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, aunt and cousin, respectively, to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.
Grey Gardens, the family home, is in East Hampton, and in 1941 Big Edie (Rachel York) and the 20-something Little Edie (Sarah Hunt) are living quite comfortably, as people born to great wealth customarily are. Big Edie’s husband is in New York, with no plans to return, while she busily pursues her desire to be a singer and cultivates a controlling relationship with George Gould Strong (Bryan Batt), her accompanist, who is gay.
Little Edie also has stage ambitions, but meanwhile she’s affianced to JFK’s brother, Joe Kennedy Jr. (Josh Young), whom she’s wild about. But her mother puts a stop to the engagement by maliciously taking Joe aside and confiding that her daughter is damaged goods. With her hopes for marital bliss in shards, the younger woman packs her bags for the big city.
Act 2 takes place 32 years later. The two women (York now assumes the role of the 56-year-old little Edie and Betty Buckley plays her mother) are living together again, but their once-handsome domicile has become a vermin-infested shambles, so advanced that the Board of Health is considering razing it. The state of the house reflects the dementia and despair of its inhabitants. The elder woman has taken on the traits of a child, while her daughter, feeling trapped, is angry and bitter.
Directed by Michael Wilson, Grey Gardens showcases York’s vocal range and talent; its impressive display culminates with the final song, “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” which carries with it all the melancholy of an unfulfilled life.
Dramatically, however (that is, leaving aside the musical elements), the show is less satisfying. Part of the problem lies in the book, and the difficulty in relating Hunt’s bubbly debutante from the first act to York’s eccentric albeit careworn middle-ager in the second. And although York and Buckley are consummate professionals, the performances I observed at one Saturday matinee were good but not exceptional. In York, a visceral passion was missing — except for one scene I did find gripping: their confrontation, late in Act 2, over Big Edie’s betrayal and the subsequent dashing of all her daughter’s marital hopes.
Among the ensemble, Davon Williams is notable as the estate’s caretaker who registers its decline; everyone else lends capable support. Designer Jeff Cowie’s set in Act 1 is an elegant rendering of old money and class, but the dilapidated antithesis he contrives for the second act is too stagey-looking and fantastical to properly reinforce the human tragedy.
The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through Aug. 14. centertheatregroup.org.