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THEATER REVIEW: ion’s “Grey Gardens”

The Kennedy family is as close to royalty as this country gets. So when in 1973 the “National Enquirer” reported that Jackie Onassis’ aunt and cousin were living in squalor in their dilapidated East Hampton estate with “52 stray cats and a few rabid raccoons,” it was news. That the women had, shall we say, lost touch with reality was not a surprise; they’d led rather strange lives before this.

The 2006 musical “Grey Gardens” is based on this report and a 1975 documentary about the Beale mère et fille. With a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, it won three Tonys in 2007.

“Grey Gardens” runs through April 20 at ion theatre. Kim Strassburger directs.

The story begins in 1941, as 24-year-old Edie prepares for her engagement party. She will marry one of the Kennedy clan: Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr. (Charles Evans).

Edie’s mother Edith Bouvier Beale (Linda Libby), an amateur singer with the bulldozer personality of Mama Rose (of “Gypsy”) and the artistic pretensions of Florence Foster Jenkins, is ready with the unsolicited entertainment for the party: she will sing nine songs, and just happens to have a printed program.

Edie, a singer herself, is appalled (though not surprised). Kennedy is eventually scared off not by the song list but by Edith’s blabbermouth tale of a swimming pool mishap, leaving Edie not quite at the altar ... again.

Edie threatens constantly to move to New York and live her own life – and does so for a short time – but she returns. “Grey Gardens” is mostly about this mother-daughter relationship, so fraught with love, hate, abhorrence, guilt and fear and eventual lunacy.

Mama Edith has her own problems: though her husband Phelan has plenty of money, he also has an apartment in New York where he spends most of his time. “It’s business,” she tells her father, Major Bouvier (Ralph Johnson).

“Monkey business,” the Major replies.

So Edith takes refuge in her music, which she shares with longtime friend George Gould Strong (Ruff Yeager,) a dapper gay pianist who serves as her accompanist. Later she will pick on 17-year-old slacker and handyman Jerry (Evans), and sing a blockbuster of a song called “Jerry Likes My Corn” (I’m not explaining it; you’ll have to see the show).

The Beales’ African American butler Brooks (Kevane La’Marr Coleman) is used to their idiosyncrasies but still horrified when Edith insists on murdering a “Shortnin’ Bread” kind of number called “Hominy Grits” to demonstrate her talent. She is so embarrassingly bad that the Major is led to remark, “You are the most pitiable of creatures: an actress without a stage.”

Two Bouvier children also flit through the story – Edith’s nieces Lee (Lou Rasse) and Jacqueline Bouvier (Emma Rasse). This is the Jacqueline who will become America’s First Lady in 1960.

Accompanist Wendy Thompson deserves a medal for getting through an astonishing amount of music. Many of Korie’s lyrics are clever, and Frankel provides era-indicative musical styles – but the score needs trimming. There are too many verses of too many songs for a show that has only one point: bad parenting leads to bad behavior, maybe even insanity.

Hinton, Libby and Koepf are standouts as the Beale women. Johnson is convincing as the Major (especially in his advice to the girls, “Marry Well”), less so as Norman Vincent Peale, a part that could be cut with no loss.

Coleman is fine as Brooks, as are the Rasse girls as the Bouvier youngsters. Yeager plays the dandy a bit too broadly for my taste. Evans is better as the teenage Jerry in the second act than as Kennedy in the first.

Accents are fleeting all around, a few lines were blown, and the direction could be snappier.

Kudos to Erick Sundquist for some of the strangest clothes ever seen onstage.

The show can’t quite decide what it wants to be. The too-long first act seems to be a documentary-like story of a quirky and unhappy family. By the second act (which takes place 32 years later), both Edith (now played by Annie Hinton) and Edie (now played by Libby) are around the bend mentally.

Though it’s amusing to watch crazy old ladies act nutty, it seems likely that the Kennedy tie-in is the only reason this show was written. This contributes an “ick” factor (schadenfreude, anyone?) and made me wonder why they didn’t just add music to those fictional dotty dames in “Arsenic And Old Lace.”

The details

“Grey Gardens” plays through April 20 at ion theatre’s BLKBOX, 3704 Sixth Ave. in Hillcrest.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 pm.

Tickets: (619) 600-5020 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.