In the summer of 1972, socialite Lee Radziwill brought filmmaking brothers Albert and David Maysles to East Hampton in the interest of making a documentary about her childhood.
On that trip, Radziwill, the sister of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, took the Maysleses to Grey Gardens, the dilapidated mansion inhabited by her reclusive aunt and cousin. The Radziwill documentary was ultimately dropped, but the Maysleses were fascinated by her relatives — both named Edith Beale — and their fall from opulence. After the Maysleses' haunting documentary "Grey Gardens" was released in 1975, the rest of America was too.
The cinéma verité film shows the former debutantes living in flea- and raccoon-infested filth. They're subject to inspections by the health department —which they call raids — and seem to exist solely on steamed corn and canned pâté. They've gone a little kooky, but still have the ability to charm, living out nonconformist lives on their own terms.
Since it debuted, the documentary has inspired fashion spreads, a Drew Barrymore movie, a hilarious "Documentary Now" send-up, and a Broadway musical. The latter has taken the stage at the Richmond Triangle Players under Debra Clinton's assured direction, and like the documentary that shares its name, proves its affecting staying power.
The show's first act takes place during the relatively happier times of 1941. Grey Gardens is still a grand manse in the Hamptons, and Little Edie (Grey Garrett) is about to have her engagement party. Her beau-to-be is none other than Joe Kennedy Jr. (Elijah Williams), older brother to John and the favored Kennedy to run for senator and president had he not later died in World War II. Never one to shy away from the limelight, Big Edie (Susan Sanford) plans to co-opt the festivities by singing nine songs, accompanied by her pianist and gay companion George Gould Strong (Eddie Webster).
In the second act, we get a musical interpretation of the documentary, with some of the dialogue taken verbatim from the film. With Big Edie now in her late 70s (Boomie Pedersen) and Little Edie (Sanford again) in middle age, Grey Gardens has spent more two decades in decline. Here, famous scenes like Little Edie's flag dance and the feeding of raccoons are worked into the fabric of a musical.
While it's hard not to favor the familiar happenings of the second act, the former does good work establishing the resentments and pressure of familial expectations for both Edies, matching the slightly campy but empathetic tone.
In her dual roles, Sanford wows, playing up Big Edie in the first act as a Mama Rose-type figure filled with jealousy of her daughter. But as Act Two's Little Edie she's particularly wrenching, getting at the character's deep hurt while still entertaining in numbers like "The Revolutionary Costume for Today." Navigating Little Edie's mix of insecurity and bravado, Sanford creates a complex character you can't help but feel for.
Garrett is also moving as Act One's Little Edie, especially in "Daddy's Girl," and as Act Two's Big Edie, Pederson shines in numbers like "The Cake I Had" and "Jerry Likes My Corn." All three actresses paint a layered portrait of codependency, love and resentment that's hard to shake; where the Beales wanted their lives to be Rodgers and Hammerstein, they got Tennessee Williams instead.
Backed by an impressive production team that includes Kim Fox's musical direction, Stephen Rudlin's vocal direction, Amanda Durst's dialect coaching and Matthew Banes' lighting design, the actresses have staunch support. The lone sour note is Frank Foster's set design, which opts for a minimalist take on a mansion that has seen great highs and lows.
With a book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Doug Wright and music and lyrics by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, respectively, this show balances the empathy and wonder that made the documentary so enchanting.
Near the show's conclusion, Sanford gets one last solo number, "Another Winter in a Summer Town." It's a heartbreaking lament of days gone by, and an epitaph for a bird whose wings were clipped long ago.
"Grey Gardens" plays through July 27 at Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Ave. For information, visit rtriangle.org or call 346-8113.