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grey gardens: a fresh triumph

the old grey gardens? the best show i saw last year.

the new grey gardens? one of the best shows i have ever seen.

many people thought (and i did too, on reflection) that the first act needed tightening. they’ve done it with fairly extensive changes, while plumping up everything thematic and dramatic. the second act is largely untouched, but the staging is much improved, and the ending is better.

below, i’ve scanned the old & new playbill covers, and the old & new song lists:

« click on thumbnails to view pictures »

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old cover

grey
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new cover

grey
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old songs

grey
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new songs

changes?

» “toyland” out, “the girl who has everything” in. to be honest, i don’t remember toyland, but “the girl who has everything” works perfectly as a recurring theme; playful with a dark undertone at the beginning, devastating and haunting at the end. verdict: improvement.

» “body beautiful beale” out. great song, but the message is communicated in the book. verdict: no great loss.

» “better fall out of love” out, “goin’ places” in. the new song does a better job of foreshadowing joe kennedy’s eventual departure, and is more believable overall. verdict: improvement.

» “being bouvier” out, “marry well” in. it seems like a lot of major bouvier’s first act part was cut, or at least that’s my impression. that’s probably ultimately good, as it focuses attention on the beales. the new song gets a lot of the points across that formerly were in the book, or were not part of the original song. verdict: there’s no such thing as too much john mcmartin, but on the balance a slight plus.

» novelty numbers trimmed. “hominy grits” and the oriental featured number with the young bouvier girls have been considerably shortened. they don’t need to be any longer. you could cut them further if you wanted. in fact, you could lose “hominy grits” altogether if you ask me, although it does add to the character development somewhat. verdict: huge improvement.

» “tomorrow’s woman” gone. don’t remember it. didn’t miss it. verdict: improvement.

» horrible anachronistic lyric about howard hughes and the spruce goose gone. my complaint with this in the original was that the action took place in 1941, and the spruce goose flew in 1947. it’s gone. verdict: enormous improvement. the details count.

» sara gettelfinger out, erin davie in. i liked sara gettelfinger, the original young little edie, but erin davie does a great job. there’s a moment when she’s singing “daddy’s girl” when the tone shifts. the lyrics have to be delivered perfectly to avoid a false note, and davie does it wonderfully. verdict: a wash.

» moppets out, moppets in. sorry to be rude or crass, but the kids (jackie and lee bouvier) are largely background. the new moppets didn’t pull my focus, which is a good thing. the old ones didn’t either. verdict: no verdict necessary.

all these are first act changes which have helped things immensely. there’s a more even flow, the character development has improved, and there are lighter moments which contrast well with the darker ones.

the second act songs are the same, with the exception of the end:

» “peas in a pod” out, “the girl who has everything” in. i realize now it’s now a much, much better ending. “peas in a pod” was ironic, but lacked a certain gravitas. the new ending doesn’t sell out a bit. it’s relentlessly consistent with the action that immediately precedes it. verdict: improvement.

they’ve also echoed christine ebersole’s first act big edie in her show-ending turn as little edie, and that’s a good thing. they’ve done a marvelous job–changing the staging at the end and adding lines and the new song really reinforces the way that the edies are so much alike. and the end is so haunting–christine ebersole is such a presence, and you really could hear the proverbial pin drop.

the rest of the cast remains excellent. mary louise wilson was good in the original, but is more focused here, it seems. she’s settled in to a great interplay with christine ebersole–their time together on stage really crackles.

kirk says i tend to speak in superlatives. it’s a fair statement. i cheerlead a bit for the things i like. but i mostly don’t blather on about the things that stink, because they aren’t worth my time. and i don’t even mention a lot of the things i like a lot. i saw “the prestige” this week, and liked it a lot, but it ain’t “shortbus”, so i’m not going on about it.

usually my opinion settles out, and i’ve had a year to digest the old version of this musical, to give me a basis to compare it to the new version. and while my opinion might change over time, right now i’d say that this is one of the top five theatrical events i’ve seen in my lifetime. i haven’t been this completely thrilled in an audience since i saw elaine stritch at the public theater. it’s that level of engagement, and that level of amazement.