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Rooted in reality, 'Gardens' blooms with creativity

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NEW YORK -- In 1974, long before B-list celebs began inviting TV crews into their homes to document their domestic foibles, a pair of enterprising filmmakers chronicled the dysfunctional relationship between Edith Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edie, respectively the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The elder Beale, once a glamorous society matron, and "Little Edie," who had reportedly been pursued by the likes of Howard Hughes and J. Paul Getty, were holed up in their family's East Hampton estate. Albert and David Maysles' cult classic Grey Gardens revealed how the reclusive women had allowed the place to deteriorate into a filthy haven for stray cats and raccoons.

It's hardly shocking that this slice of cinema verite, with its colorful characters and camp value, would strike someone as a great idea for a contemporary musical. What's surprising, and refreshing, are the ingenuity and sheer heart informing the new off-Broadway transfer Grey Gardens (*** 1/2 out of four), which opened Thursday at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Like many reality series showcasing the almost-famous, the Maysles movie could seem voyeuristic, exploitative of its subjects.

The musical offers more of a back story. The first act envisions the Beales in their early-'40s heyday, as the elegant, middle-aged Edith prepares to announce her beautiful daughter's engagement to Joseph Kennedy Jr. With deft creative license, librettist Doug Wright evokes the social and psychological baggage underlying the transformation we witness post-intermission, when the women are portrayed as they are on-screen.

These portraits never devolve into caricatures, thanks to Michael Greif's sprightly, sensitive direction and a pair of superb performances -- or a trio, actually. Christine Ebersole plays Edith in Act 1 and Edie in Act 2, and infuses both roles with a profound poignancy that complements her comic prowess.

Ebersole also sings gorgeously, and composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie have provided her with some of the most tuneful and moving songs to grace an original musical in years. Mary Louise Wilson, who adds more hilarity and heartbreak as the geriatric Edith, delivers winningly wry, catchy numbers.

The supporting cast adds to a production that, for all its drollness, transcends the kitschiness that's prominent on Broadway's musical-comedy menu. Dig in and enjoy.

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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