One thing you can say about the Beales of Grey Gardens: they sure knew how to grab your attention. The new production of the musical based on their lives grabs your attention too, and doesn't let go. It's a lively show, full of catchy, intelligent songs and finely textured performances. And this production is beautiful to look at, thanks to a spare, striking set design and ingenious projections. But this adaptation of Grey Gardens, despite its ambitions, never quite transcends its documentary origins to become a great piece of art in its own right. Directed by Lisa Peterson, Grey Gardens is a very enjoyable way to spend an evening, but it never quite digs deep enough into the lives of the eccentric women it depicts to be completely satisfying.
For the uninitiated, here's the show's background: The 1975 documentary Grey Gardens by Albert and David Maysles told the story of Edith Bouvier Beale, the elderly aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and her middle-aged daughter Edie. Without any steady income for decades, their once-glorious Long Island mansion (whose name gave the film its title) had deteriorated into squalor, infested by fleas and overrun by cats and raccoons. But what makes the film so compelling is the fractured, twisted love/hate relationship between "Big Edie" and "Little Edie." Spending their days arguing and reminiscing, theirs is a life of dreams unfulfilled, of resentments (and delusions of grandeur) left to fester for decades.
Doug Wright's book for the musical Grey Gardens smartly shows the deterioration of the Beales' lives by showing us what came before the hard times. While act two recreates the milieu of the documentary, act one is a prequel set in 1941, showing the family preparing for Little Edie's engagement party. That doomed engagement was to Joseph Kennedy, the elder brother of the future president. At one point Joe sees Edie's twelve-year-old cousin Jacqueline Bouvier and observes, "That kid has poise to spare." (That's one of several overdone reminders of the Beales' connection to history.) Eventually, Big Edie's machinations drive Joe away, but to the audience, she seems at first to be merely a charming oddball. By the time act two rolls around, though, we see the damage that her eccentricities have wrought.
Grey Gardens is a complex show, and Hollis Resnick's performance centers it beautifully. She plays the mother in act one and the daughter in act two, perfectly segueing from playing a woman oblivious to the damage she causes to one who knows all too well the price she has paid. Resnick makes such a vivid impression that the other two actresses playing the Edies suffer in comparison. Joy Franz is oddly muted as the act two version of Big Edie, while Kim Carson, who plays Little Edie in act one, stridently struggles to replicate her character's distinctive and unusual accent. There are also delightful supporting turns by John Jellison as Big Edie's bombastic father and by Todd Almond as the sarcastic, jaded pianist she hires to accompany her in her sad quest to become a performer. Like the rest of the cast, they've got wonderful singing voices.
Scott Frankel's robust melodies serve the story very well. The songs in act one are mostly pastiches of popular styles from the early twentieth century, while Michael Korie's lyrics vary between advancing the plot and commenting on it ironically. In act two, things change: the music becomes more unusual and distinctive, while many of the lyrics take catch phrases from the movie and repeat them until they become tiresome in songs like "The Cake I Had" and "Jerry Likes My Corn". (Those songs, like much of act two, will probably be meaningless to theatergoers who haven't seen either the documentary or the recent HBO telemovie based on it.)
Yet, mixed in with these too-literal numbers are heartbreaking songs which give insight into the characters: "Around the World," in which Little Edie sings of her faded aspirations against a rising and falling melody, and the reflective "Another Winter In a Summer Town," in which she resigns herself to her fate. Both songs are aided greatly, like nearly every scene, by Jorge Cousineau's distinctive projections, displayed against the bare white walls of David Zinn's set.
When the songs are over, the Edies are left only with their memories and, for better or worse, each other. The ending leaves both women with only bleak prospects for the future. It's realistic, but it can't help but leave the viewer as dispirited as Little Edie herself. The documentary is fascinating because of its cinema verité glimpse into the real lives of two bizarre women, yet it doesn't really tell a story. In the musical, act one has an interesting plot, but act two has no plot at all, and as the ladies' lives fade away, so does the show's dramatic thrust. The play would work better if it had more insight into what brought the ladies from the heights to the depths; the authors do have some insight, but not enough to justify an entire evening. The documentary let us marvel at the emptiness of the ladies' lives, but this musical ultimately feels empty.
Still, it's beautifully empty. While it may not succeed on every level, PTC's Grey Gardens still boasts excellent songs, a terrific and well-directed ensemble, and intriguing subject matter. It's thoughtful and haunting, and it will give you a lot to think about and appreciate.
Grey Gardens runs through June 28, 2009 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $51 to $70, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.