Left – Pamela Rabe. Cover – the Cast. Photos – Jeff Busby
The documentary film Grey Gardens is an unveiling of the ‘cat lady’ and an ‘actress without a stage’. ‘Little’ Edie Beale and her mother, ‘Big’ Edie – Edith Bouvier-Beale, a self-professed singer, have a relationship that is full of hate, desperation, enmeshed, emotionally abusive and isolating. The entanglement of the past and the fractured womanhood they share dries their hope, so that every expression of joy is a performance containing hopelessness, grief and cynicism.
Grey Gardens hit the headlines as an overgrown, squalid and flea infested sanctuary for the mother-daughter relationship. Being cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy, these women’s’ living conditions caused an embarrassing scandal. The musical begins in 1973, and skips very quickly back into 1941 to Grey Gardens, in its heyday. The events in Act One set up a strong foundation of degradation in Act Two, giving a potential explanation for why and how.
The Production Company’s Grey Gardens has an all-star cast: with Bert LaBonte’s magnificent comic timing, John O’May’s gruff, aristocratic Major Bouvier, James Millar’s cynical, seductively camp George Gould Strong, and the eloquent delivery of the young Edie and her Kennedy beau by Liz Stiles, and Alex Rathberger, the production travels to the end, painlessly. However, Pamela Rabe’s extraordinary talent applied to mimicry, straining to hit the high notes, speaking singing and falling off the ends of phrases, breathlessly, is tense.
Grey Gardens the musical for the most part, disconnects with the dramatic tension in the narrative structure, because of the musical element. An internalised, isolated world where tension is already spinning at such a heightened state must be matched by an equally heightened musicality. An effective shift perhaps, would be to leave the musical structure behind at the end of the first act, where everything exists like the MGM musical, slowly sliding into the greyness of the tilted sanity of Act Two – Grey Gardens in it’s demise.
Why make this story into a musical? At the end of the evening, this was the resounding thought. Perhaps watching the documentary was a hinderance to the enjoyment of this production. These women’s’ tortured, haplessly, empty lives relentlessly rolled in a stinking mess of duty and social protocol fell into the moulds of shiny, clever performances. The questioning of what it means to be controlled by another human being because ‘we love them’, lay dormant. Despite the wonderful set design by Richard Roberts, lighting design by Matt Scott, and orchestra conducted by Kellie Dickerson, Grey Gardens is grey, with only glint of green around the edges.
The Production Company presents
Book by Doug Wright | Music by Scott Frankel | Lyrics by Michael Korie
Based on the film Grey Gardens by David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Ellen Movde, Muffie Meyer and Susan Froemke
Director Roger Hodgman
Venue: The Arts Centre | 100 St Kilda Road Melbourne
Dates: 25 November – 4 December 2011
Tickets: $25 – $97 (not including transaction fee)
Bookings: 1300 182 183