It's unnecessary to watch Grey Gardens, the 1975 documentary, to appreciate the musical. But one of the tuner's virtues — beyond Doug Wright's robust book, Michael Korie's erudite lyrics, Scott Frankel's beguiling music, Michael Greif's vivid direction, and Jeff Calhoun's delicate choreography — is that the cast's beautiful performances are even more remarkable once you've seen the film.
Following a request by Lee Radziwill, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis' sister, to make a film about the Bouviers, documentarians David and Albert Maysles, among others, became acquainted with Jackie and Lee's aunt Edith Bouvier Beale and cousin "Little Edie" Beale. It was the early '70s; the Beales were living in putrid squalor in Grey Gardens, a decrepit East Hampton, Long Island, manse where the prologue to Act 1, set in 1973, begins. Aged and frail, Edith (the extraordinary Mary Louise Wilson) sings "The Girl Who Has Everything." Is she singing of herself, an aristocratic doyenne with unrealized ambitions to sing professionally, or of the youth of Little Edie (Erin Davie), a ravishing deb who, like Jackie O., might have wed a future president? The authors posit that right before America's entry into World War II, Little Edie's engagement to Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (a dreamily toothy Matt Cavenaugh) was to be announced, a match ultimately derailed. (In reality, though the two dated, there is no evidence that an engagement was contemplated.)
When the musical ran last spring at Playwrights Horizons, one criticism was of Act 1, in which the authors dramatize the imagined events of 1941 to unveil the emotional antecedents of the Beales' state in 1973. Some have accused the authors of pinning the Beales' fate on Little Edie's broken nuptials, but that's a facile criticism: The beauty of the musical is that it doesn't attempt to define a single reason why the Beales fell into the penury, filth, bickering, screaming, singing, and recollecting of deferred dreams that were captured first on film and now on stage. It's far too wise for that.
It's the creative team's brilliant scheme for Christine Ebersole, in Broadway's best performance of the new season, to play Edith in Act 1 and Little Edie — that is, her detached-from-reality remnants — in Act 2. You can almost see how, just before intermission, Davie hands off the character to Ebersole, who has just played Little Edie's maladjusted mother to the hilt. Ebersole's voice thrills in Act 1, especially when Edith's dear friend, flamboyant composer George Gould Strong (a gimlet-eyed Bob Stillman), sits at the keys. Her acting is richly textured, whether Edith is amusing her young nieces Jacqueline and Lee Bouvier (Sarah Hyland and Kelsey Fowler) or receiving the scorn of her father, J.V. "Major" Bouvier (the solid John McMartin).
But that's a drum roll compared to the cymbal smashing of Ebersole's work in Act 2, when she and Wilson transcend playing the Edies as oddities. In scenes and songs dramatic, hilarious, and revealing, they infuse these women with gorgeous, unstinting humanity, and are given exquisite songs like "The Revolutionary Costume for Today" and "The Cake I Had" that sweetly illuminate their souls. Later, we meet Jerry (Cavenaugh again), a kind of lost boy; when Edith sings "Jerry Likes My Corn," we finally sense the flaming hatred, burning resentment, and jaw-tightening, love-drenched bonds that brought the Beales to their decayed state.
There's more to be said for Ebersole and Wilson — their aristocratic accents, their ability to overlap their lengthy bits of dialogue — not to mention the writing, which is tighter than it was Off-Broadway and determined to honor the glorious horror show that was the Beales. Grey Gardens it is — but in colors incandescent.
Presented by East of Doheny, Staunch Entertainment, Randall L. Wreghitt/Mort Swinsky, Michael Alden, and Edwin W. Schloss in association with Playwrights Horizons at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., NYC. Opened Nov. 2 for an open run. Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (No performances Sun., Nov. 5, and Thu., Nov. 23.) (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250 or www.telecharge.com. Casting by Telsey + Company.