Max & Louie’s production of Grey Gardens The Musical may not be perfect in every details. But it’s incredibly satisfying for a number of reasons.
It is, of course, the story of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’ cousins, a mother and daughter who became recluses on Long Island, a story made famous by Albert and David Maysles’ documentary film Grey Gardens. (I once sat next to David Maysles on a plane. He wanted to talk about anything but that, so much to-do had there been over it.)
For St. Louis audiences, this is a new show, very much in the contemporary style of a musical-not-a-comedy. Casting is the key to much of the show’s success, starting off with Debbie Lennon who plays, at various times, both the daughter and the mother in the show, which takes place in 1941 and 1973. Lennon is remarkable, a fine voice and excellent acting in each of the two demanding roles. In the 1941 segment, the ingenue-age daughter is played by Madeline Purches, innocent – or is she? - and peppy, and sounding great.
In the second act, Lennon is the middle-aged daughter, head swathed in scarves because she apparently suffered from alopecia, and living with her mother, with whom she’d always had a complex, tumultuous relationship. In this act, Mom is the very capable Donna Weinsting, roaring and wailing and manipulating. Her husband had left her, her birth family’s money was dissipated, and the house is in disarray, disrepair and decrepitude.
We never see the husband/father who left the family. But the father/grandfather of the women, retired Major J.V. Bouvier, played by Tom Murray, appears, a nice mix of stiff upper lip and warmth, and endearingly shown by Murray. He’s shepherding around two other granddaughters, Jackie and Lee, and, yes, they do grow up to be very well known, indeed, perhaps because Major Bouvier sings to them “Marry Well”. The song’s a model of antiquated thinking, but in the situation becomes notable and somehow rather poignant. The young sisters are Phoebe Desilets as Jackie and Carter Eiseman as Lee, acting, singing and dancing like professionals. Good work, young women.
Will Bonfiglio is the rather stiff Joe Kennedy, Jr., the fiance-to-be of young Edie (a match that is sheer literary license), and the laid-back handyman, Jerry. The permanent houseguest, an early Kato Kalin, is brought to life by Terry Meddows, always a fast guy with a quip. Brooks, the father who’s the butler and the son who’s their landscaper, comes to us from Omega Jones, another contrast of stiff and traditional versus easy-going.
Annamaria Pileggi directed this difficult story. It’s difficult not because it’s complicated and hard to understand but because there’s family drama and, it becomes increasingly clearer, mental illness. No happy endings, but an interesting tale. The set, which is various parts of the eponymous house, is from Dunsi Dai. Michael Sullivan’s lighting is an integral part of the story and worth paying particular attention to. The New York and Boston accents are distressingly inconsistent and probably could have been skipped altogether.
Neal Richardson, the musical director who’s also on piano, works with violinist Kyle Twomey and cello player Ethan Edwards, nice work from them and well-balanced sound courtesy of Casey Hunter.
It’s the combination of story, voices and acting that come together to make this a whole that’s greater than its individual parts. As such, it’s a worthwhile experience.
Grey Gardens The Musical
through July 30
The Wool Family Studio
Jewish Community Center Staenberg Family Complex
2 Millstone Campus Drive, Creve Coeur
Max & Louie Productions