grey gardens is a great production for portland center stage to close out the season with. based on the 1975 documentary by the maysles brothers about a pair of eccentric, distant relatives of jacqueline bouvier kennedy onassis. bordering on exploitation, the documentary showcases big edie and little edie bouvier beale as they live in their run down east hampton manor house, practically penniless. seems like odd fodder for a musical, but it works on a lot of points. it also misses a few.
the first act, set in 1941, is a fictional telling of little edie’s engagement to joe kennedy jr falling apart thanks to big edie’s intervention. the first act is used to establish how far the pair had fallen, and to show the manipulative power of big edie. the music and songs of the first act are traditional cole porter/gershwin era music, lots of brass and jazz hands. some of which are a bit derivative, but they do a good job of setting a tone and feeling for the time. unfortunately the act seems a bit short, not giving enough time for any real character development.
the second act is where grey gardens really succeeds. set in 1975 and using dialogue directly from the documentary, we get a glimpse into the world of the beales. it’s the music that really makes this act work, more in the vein of steven sondheim and a bit of philip glass. the songs and music take on a darker tone, with more prominent strings and percussion. some tin pan alley is thrown in, i believe to give it a connection to the first act. some unusual cadence is used, and some of the songs are sung purposefully slightly out of tune. the songs are catchy and somewhat haunting, even several days later i’m still humming a couple of them. the second act is also rather short, and no plot exists at all, really it’s just a snapshot into a day of the beales.
the eccentricities of the beales was played for comic effect, something i found a little off. while their story is fascinating, i always thought it was a bit tragic, so all the people laughing at them made it seem even more so to me. kind of like a bully picking on the weird kid.
though a bit uneven, and could have used a bit more plot deveolpment, i still greatly enjoyed my visit to grey gardens.