“Grey Gardens” Is a Musical That Takes You From Sunshine to Gloom by Kevin M. Thomas


The story of “Grey Gardens” is a fascinating one. The real life tale of big and little Edie Beale, relatives to Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, who go from riches to squalor is an interesting story.

The Edies first made it into the public eye through the great 1975 documentary – a film that is listed among the top ten documentaries of all time.  Their peculiar living conditions and personalities have made them endearing characters, which also was the subject to a Tony Award winning musical and Emmy Award winning TV movie with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.

Now,eight years after the Broadway productions, “Grey Gardens” comes to San Francisco and is given expert treatment from the team at Custom Made Theatre Co.

Edies_in_BedroomDirector Stuart Bousel has pieced together a tapestry of talent  – from the actors to the production team. He brings to the stage a production of heart, grit, emotion and humor.

At the core of the show’s success is Heather Orth. So wonderful in last year’s “Carrie,” Orth proves she’s no one hit wonder as she takes on the role of Edie with gusto.

In the first act, she plays mother dear Edie, a socialite living on the top. With a gay male companion and servants galore, the Grey Gardens estate of the 1940s seemed to be the East Coast’s answer to “Gone With the Wind’s” Tara. Her upper crust accent in act one changes as much as her tax bracket in act two,  as she slides down the rabbit hole of filth. Her singing voice, though, is luminous throughout.

The sprawling 28 room house is masterfully recreated at the tiny Gough Street Playhouse. Sure there’s not a set of 28 rooms, but the illusion is there – and there’s enough on stage for us to believe the oppulence that we’re not seeing. Between Bousel’s direction and Stewart Lyle’s scenic design,  we believe that there are more beyond the scope of what we see on stage.

Orth isn’t alone on stage though. First act’s little Edie comes to life from Juliana Lustenader, who is a beautiful young woman with a voice to match. She is quite believable as a debutante with an edge.

The second act now has Orth as little Edie, but an older version as the story moves forward to the 1970s. So the role of big Edie now comes to life in the form of Mary Gibboney, who masters her role as much as Orth. Gibboney and Orth have amazing chemistry and make themselves comfortable in the darker, dreary Grey Gardens estate, which is now condemned by the city as it is falling apart around them.

This is truly a remarkable production – complete with cat meows during intermission (which is a funny touch addressing the issue of the house being overrun by cats and raccoons).

But it wouldn’t be successful on any level if it wasn’t for the impactful and witty book by Doug Wright and a great set of songs from Scott Frankel and Michael Korie.

 “Grey Gardens” plays at Custom Made through June 21. Uber fans might want to attend the special performance featuring the Beale’s real handy man on May 30, where Jerry Torre will also be available for a Q&A. Get tickets and info at  http://www.custommade.org/grey-gardens/