Back to the Garden : Christine Ebersole and Billy Stritch Ring in the New Year at Town Hall

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by Steve Desroches

It’s a reflective and auspicious time for Christine Ebersole, as often the coming of a New Year can be. But for the celebrated actress of stage and screen, it’s a particularly special time. This coming year she’ll turn 70 and mark 50 years in show business. Her three children are now out on their own and she and her husband are adjusting to the empty nest. In September she released her sixth solo album, After the Ball, featuring tracks like “Autumn Leaves” and “I’m Old Fashioned” that harness the mood to reminisce Ebersole is in. And in November she was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in a ceremony at New York City’s Gershwin Theater, along with playwrights Lynn Nottage and Suzan-Lori Parks, director Frank Galati, and actor Mandy Patinkin, among others. All of this while she continues to tour with concert dates and shoot the hit CBS sitcom Bob Hearts Abishola, a comedic look at the love affair of an American-born man and a Nigerian immigrant.

It’s been quite the year, and Ebersole is looking forward to 2023 as she takes to the stage on New Year’s Eve with her longtime friend and collaborator Billy Stritch at Town Hall for an evening of music and fun.

“At this point in my life and career I’m so grateful for everything that’s come my way,” says Ebersole. “There’s no guarantees. I’m just grateful. I’m not chasing life the way I used to, but rather I’m staying open to all the possibilities.”

The calm and confidence in her voice communicates how her talent, hard work, and intelligence has taken her to this place of gratitude and accolade. And her resume is indicative of the possibilities that became realities for her as she’s maneuvered film, television, and theater so successfully she’s been a part of numerous projects with enormous cultural impact. She’s appeared in such films as Tootsie, Amadeus, The Wolf of Wall Street, and most recently the Academy Award Best Picture nominee Licorice Pizza. She got her start in television on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope before landing a gig as a cast member of Saturday Night Live going on to make memorable guest spots on popular shows like Murphy Brown, Ally McBeal, Will & Grace, Ugly Betty, American Horror Story: Coven, and Pose. But it’s her work on the stages of Broadway that catapulted Ebersole to legendary status, and the hall of fame, appearing in celebrated productions of Camelot, Oklahoma!, War Paint, Blithe Spirit with the late Angela Lansbury, and her Tony-winning performances in 42nd Street, and of course, Grey Gardens.

Based on the 1975 documentary about the eccentric relatives of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy living in a decrepit mansion in East Hampton, New York, the musical Grey Gardens became a mega hit all on its own. Written by Doug Wright with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie (the latter two are associated with the Art House’s Mark Cortale’s theater lab New Works Provincetown developing the musical The Last Diva), Grey Gardens cemented Ebersole’s iconic status as a Broadway star for her portrayal of both Edith “Big Edie” Beal and her daughter “Little Edie.” Sure, the musical began at a good jumping off point as the documentary, and Little Edie, are both beloved figures in American pop culture. But Ebersole’s performance is really what drove the musical to its huge success. The wonderful yet intimidating challenge of portraying such a well-known figure is always a thrill and a worry. It’s of course what actors do. But to take on a character with which audiences are familiar with the minutia of everything from their movements to speech idiosyncrasies is on a whole new level. It’s a feeling Ebersole is familiar with even when portraying fictional characters as she played Ado Annie in Oklahoma! and Guenevere in Camelot, roles originated and made famous by Celeste Holm and Julie Andrews respectively. Preparing to create these characters and make them your own is more a marathon than a spring, explains Ebersole.

“I think with Grey Gardens I just immersed myself,” says Ebersole. “I watched the documentary over and over. That helped with Little Edie, but there is no footage of Big Edie when she was young entertaining in her garden. You eventually have to rely on your imagination to fully inhabit the character. I think when it’s a revival and you’re playing a role created by someone like Julie Andrews, you can’t really compete with that. You really can’t. But you can try to inhabit that character in a way that goes down to the bone and you inhabit it and make it your own experience, for you and the audience.”

At her Town Hall show with Stritch, who she’s known since meeting him during the run of 42nd Street, Ebsersole will present a pastiche of favorite songs from everything from the Great American Songbook, to pop music to Broadway as well as a few holiday classics in rhythm with the season. Ebsersole has performed many times in Provincetown at the invitation of the Art House, blowing the roof of the venue each time she performs (and did the same when she made a surprise appearance at Ryan Landry’s Showgirls one night when the show was at the Atlantic House). She tours the world performing at concert halls and venues large and small, but she recalls each trip to Provincetown not just for its natural beauty, but distinct culture and character.

“It’s just hard to describe,” says Ebersole. “It is the best mix of a big city feeling, but in a small, beautiful town. I’ve never really been anywhere like it. It’s just so beautiful in every way.”

Christine Ebersole performs with Billy Stritch on the piano at Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St., Saturday, December 31 at 7 p.m. Tickets ($50-$150) are available at the Art House box office, 214 Commercial St. and online at ptownarthouse.com.  For more information call 508.487.9222.