BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
Many musical theater fans will know about Grey Gardens. While it wasn't a huge hit when it played on Broadway in 2006-07, it was widely praised for its score (music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie) and book (by Doug Wright) that suggests an artful merger of Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim.
Movie fans may know the story even better, since the musical was inspired by a celebrated 1975 documentary film by David and Albert Maysles. It chronicled the reclusive life of Edith Bouvier Beale, 79, and daughter Edie, 57 — "Big Edie" and "Little Edie," aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — who became tabloid fodder when Grey Gardens, their crumbling 28-room mansion in East Hampton, N.Y., was declared "unfit for human habitation" by the health department.
FreeFall Theatre is opening its season with Grey Gardens, and producing director Kevin Lane thinks it may draw as many devotees of the film as theater buffs. "This was a shocking documentary in the 1970s, cutting-edge stuff," he said. "It has a real cult following. What we're seeing from advance sales is that people who want it, want it bad."
Unlike the film, the musical portrays mother and daughter in their heyday in the fictional first act, set at Grey Gardens in 1941 when they were the toast of high society and Little Edie was engaged to Joseph Kennedy Jr. Act 2, in 1973, shows the pair in all their eccentric, seedy glory in a house full of stray cats.
"We paid a lot of attention to what is in the movie," director Eric Davis said, adding that much of the dialogue is from the film. "The beds are replicas of the beds they lay on in the film. We've put a lot of detail into little iconic things that the audience will recognize from the film. For example, there's this brooch that Edie wears with every single outfit she puts together. It's a kind of bow, with four branches spreading out from a central flower."
Grey Gardens is performed on a single set in the freeFall production, with seating for about 140. Michael Raabe leads a six-piece band.
Wyn Wilson plays the mother in the first act and then the middle-aged daughter in the second act. This was a tour de force on Broadway for Christine Ebersole, who won the Tony Award for best leading actress in a musical for the dual roles.
The freeFall cast also includes Katie Zaffrann as Little Edie in Act 1 and Ann D. Hurst as Big Edie in Act 2.
Interviewed before a rehearsal last week, the actors said they tried not to take a lot of dramatic license in playing the women. "These are real people, and I can't ignore the documentary," Wilson said. "Little Edie has her own accent that you need to represent. I feel I need to be as true to the real woman as possible."
Little Edie died at 84 in 2002 in Bal Harbour. Her mother had died 25 years earlier at 81 in New York.
In some ways, the story of the Beale women could come across as pathetic, a campy freak show. But the musical cuts through the squalor to create a compelling treatment of the relationship between a mother and daughter.
"I think they're brilliant women," Hurst said. "They're just unusual, that's all. Very independent. From the height of society. Wonderfully educated. They had all the possibilities of grandeur and just decided to hibernate. They're not a freak show, not at all."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.