Once in a lifetime, in the world of theatre, you’d hope you could say you bore witness to a theatrical event that would be engraved into the history books for eternity. This is it.
Overall, the words triumphant, a class act, hit, impressive and astonishing, although deserved, seem somewhat redundant to describe the greatness and high standard of this particular production.
Grey Gardens is a musical based on the 1975 documentary of the same title. Part fact, part fiction, it tells the story of Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale (Big Edie) and her daughter Edith Bouvier Beale (Little Edie). Aunt and cousin respectively to Jacqueline Kennedy, a family which for the US is as close as they get to royalty. Set in the Bouvier’s East Hampton mansion, the musical tracks the progression of their lives from high society, rich American aristocracy to an unsuspected dismal, isolated existence. The two famously became recluse in dilapidated squalor and brought public scandal upon the first lady, never to recover.
The Edies, Grey Gardens and their plethora of cats have become quite iconic. As much as both mother and daughter sought stardom for their minimal talents, it was to be their unfortunate riches to rags story that was compellingly powerful enough to bring them the warmth and adoration they so eagerly craved.
Turning a documentary into a musical sounds like a barmy idea, but Scott Frankel (Music), Doug Wright (Book) and Michael Korie (Lyrics) seem to have cracked it. The first act of takes us back to the heyday of 1941, bringing to light a catalyst event that threw open the torrid and tortured relationship of the Beale ladies. This gives the musical legs to truly support such deeply shocking characters and helps us understand why they became such heroines in their own right. In the second act we fast-forward to 1973, firmly in the territory of the original documentary where mother and daughter wail at each other surrounded by cats, raccoons and piles of junk.
Matched in effortless style, Frankel, Wright and Korie make this piece of genius writing so easily palatable. Delivering such an intimate story on a grand scale and staying true to the source material is achieved with heroic conquest, weaving the brilliant humour and dishevelled tragedy together with seamless, intelligent triumph. It’s something quite magnificent and simply beautiful to enjoy.
Ten years since the conception, it has taken the love and care of Danielle Tarento and Thom Southerland to bring Grey Gardens to our shores. With their consistent catalogue of breathtaking productions is it time for an endearing portmanteau? Southrento? Danithom? Tarentoland?
Grey Gardens received a host of award nominations and won three Tony’s, but had mixed reviews from the Broadway critics, so a risky gamble for Tarentoland you would have thought. But the musical Midases strike again. As usual a solid team of creators have delivered and delivered and delivered. Sound, lighting, set, costume design, musical direction, choreography, casting and just about everything is beyond perfection. You could be forgiven for forgetting this is a fringe production, such is the tangible quality of every aspect. Each supporting and balancing the other effortlessly, it makes for a truly remarkable vision of entertainment.
Southerland has orchestrated a treat for all senses, tenderly nurturing beauty, tragedy, hilarity and heart in the beds of wilting blooms. Grey Gardens could so easily become dark and haunting, but Southerland has sensitively let the ferocious femininity that pours out of every element flow joyously into your heart, just as both Edie’s do in the original documentary.
Every performer is sublime to watch, each bringing enough glamour and raw edge to their characters. Aaron Sidwell is perfect as Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr and equally entertaining as Jerry. Much kudos to newcomer Rachel Anne Rayham as Young Little Edie Beale, the petite powerhouse is delightful and not a step out of place next to Russell and Hancock – this mighty mouse is one to remember.
Sheila Hancock as Big Edie is enigmatic, hilarious and delightfully deranged. As usual everything is delivered to sweet perfection and always left me wanting more.
Thus brings us to the star of the evening, Jenna Russell. Playing both Big Edie, in her early years and then engulfing Little Edie for the reminder of the story, Russell is jubilant. The mistress of musical theatre is incredible. She takes both women and evokes a breathtaking performance that leaves you gobsmacked – desperately seeking a new way to applaud such a great performance. I must focus on her stunning tribute to Little Edie, so easily could her portrayal reek of pastiche and parody but Russell makes you fall in love with the ‘darling’ all over again. Every nuance, tick and titillation is scandalously enjoyable.
Overall, the words triumphant, a class act, hit, impressive and astonishing, although deserved, seem somewhat redundant to describe the greatness and high standard of this particular production. Once in a while something very special comes along – a theatrical historical moment that I will always cherish.