A Stunning ‘Grey Gardens: The Musical’ Arrives In St. Louis

By Richard Green
In Culture

The original Broadway cast won three Tony Awards after opening in 2006.  And by any means necessary, catch this new cast at the Jewish Community Center, directed by Annamaria Pileggi, before it closes July 30, 2016.

Debby Lennon, Madeline Purches and Terry Meddows Photo by Dan Donovan

Debby Lennon, Madeline Purches and Terry Meddows Photo by Dan Donovan

But why did it take so long to come here?

First, it’s a Herculean effort for any leading lady (in this case, the outstanding Debby Lennon):  as a glittering socialite in act one; and then 30 years later, as daughter she’s destroyed in act two. It was inspired by the legendary Maysles Brothers documentary of the same name, from 1975, which exposed a nightmarish side to the Kennedys’ Camelot.

Another reason “Grey Gardens” hasn’t come to town until now may be all the ironic, maddening and painful pleading and bickering that these two women can generate in two hours. But that’s magnificently enlivened by the comedy and the entertaining musical numbers.

It’s a fantastic emotional roller-coaster, with Ms. Lennon straddling the generations as both mother and daughter. As Little Edie in act two, she’s a wonderful, off-kilter carousel of a character, spinning madly through a psychological striptease, edging closer and closer to a complete exit. And all the charm the real Little Edie aimed at the Maysles Brothers, is now turned toward us to great effect.

My only complaint relates to the tone in act one:  it’s a little too broadly comic, and the laughter that follows seems ghastly and tasteless if we already know we’ll be waking up in the gutter in act two. Thankfully, a lot of insightful touches (and darker, biting comedy) overcome that early wackiness, and everything builds to a great climax.

Arguably, the show uses the same modern anti-globalization sensibility we saw in 2012’s “Hands On A Hardbody.” Like that show, with “Grey Gardens” we also arise from the American Dream feeling impoverished and abandoned, but strangely ennobled.

Donna Weinsting plays the older, bedridden Big Edie in the second half, a spot-on recreation of the real-life person. And Madeline Purches is great as the imagined bride-to-be Little Edie in that fanciful act one: beautiful and bubbly, but vaguely haunted by the perception that she’s already doomed.

Doug Wright adapted the dazzling musical from the must-see documentary, and Michael Korie and Scott Frankel wrote the words and music, which are invariably first rate.

For more information, visit maxandlouie.com.

Want more “Grey Gardens?” Check out our interview with the play’s costume designer.

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