By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
It isn't until Little Edie Beale has gone completely around the bend that an audience begins to fall in love. That pleasurable sensation arises sometime in the second act of "Grey Gardens," the offbeat musical at Studio Theatre about a pair of aristocratic recluses -- elderly Edith Bouvier Beale and her middle-aged daughter, Edie -- living in squalor on a fetid, raccoon-infested estate in the Hamptons.
Maybe hearts first melt during Little Edie's lushly melodic "Around the World," a tender retreat into the safe corners of her cockeyed psyche. Or perhaps the bond is sealed in "Jerry Likes My Corn," the elder Edith's paean to the simple pleasures involved in boiling corn on the cob on a hot plate next to her filthy bed.
It could also be that the tears start with "Another Winter in a Summer Town," the ravishing ballad that Little Edie sings at evening's end, as the knowledge washes over her that she's missed her chance at happiness out there beyond her mother's shabby front door.
In any event, this weird yet deeply moving show doesn't really kick into gear -- for me, anyway -- until it leaves the patrician, conventional musical world of Act 1 behind and begins to sing about the poignant decrepitude into which these hilariously independent women sink.
No doubt, some people will prefer the decorous pastiche of Act 1, which is intended, it seems, to familiarize us with the world of privilege into which the Beales were born. Still, with the commanding Broadway veteran Barbara Walsh embodying Little Edie, and the adorable Barbara Broughton playing her mother, the second half of "Grey Gardens" is when the show achieves a musical-theater upgrade from ordinary to remarkable.
The musical, of course, is inspired by the popular 1975 documentary of the same title, in which filmmaker Albert Maysles and his collaborators trained their cameras on the detritus of the women's existence, on the Beales' utter lack of inhibition. The film turned iconoclastic Edie -- who wore skirts upside down and fastened them with drapery cords -- into a fashion trendsetter, and both of them into Warhol-style celebrities; that they were cousins of Jackie Kennedy Onassis didn't hurt. And although some commentators thought the film exploited the Beales, the women themselves professed to adore it.
Having some familiarity with the documentary is a significant advantage in an encounter with this musical, which features Scott Frankel's entrancing melodies and Michael Korie's inventive lyrics -- some of them taken verbatim from the film. A grounding helps in understanding that the first act, set in 1941 at the beautiful manse known as Grey Gardens, is merely an overlong prologue to the second, in which book writer Doug Wright propels the story forward 31 years, to the radically altered home and circumstances of its inhabitants.
Not without cause has "Grey Gardens" been described as a love story. Although the musical offers no explanation for the Beales' mental decline, it does ably outline the lifelong mutual dependence that binds this mother and child. In the first act, the pleasing Jenna Sokolowski plays blond Little Edie, in full debutante flower, and Walsh plays Edith, a crooning socialite with a gay live-in accompanist (a divinely sour Bobby Smith) and an unfaithful husband off somewhere.
The cute little Bouvier cousins, tweener Jackie (Simone Grossman) and moppet Lee (Alison Cenname), flit in and out of the house, brought imaginatively to life on a turntable behind a see-through facade by set designer Russell Metheny.
The grown-ups sing carefree airs and ditties about their orderly social class. "Marry Well" is the title of a number with which Little Edie's grandfather (Ryan Hilliard) instructs the girls on the only thing a rich family expects of its female progeny.
Under the astute direction of Serge Seiden, we do sense something awry in this family, especially after Edith sabotages Little Edie's engagement to Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. (Matthew Stucky) -- an aborted romance based in fact, and an event from which the musical suggests Little Edie never recovers.
And yet, the shift in style and psychological tone is so immense that it feels as if a new musical commences after intermission. It starts, shockingly and uproariously, with Walsh, in one of the 50-something Little Edie's outrageous get-ups and singing the brilliant "Revolutionary Costume for Today": ("You fight city hall/With a Persian shawl/That used to hang on the bedroom wall/Pinned under the chin/Adorned with a pin/And pulled into a twist.")
From that point on, there's practically no plot. (As much as anything can, Alex Jaeger's evocative costumes must tell the story now.) Walsh and Broughton plop themselves on messy beds, their characters competing for the attention of an aimless local kid named Jerry (Stucky again) who helps around the house. Sounding eerily like the real Edie, Walsh allows us to envision the failed promise that the musical seeks to express, and Broughton, her hair a disheveled nest, manages to turn Edith's bruising self-absorption to complete comic advantage. Together, the actresses create a symbiotically endearing musical partnership.
Some of the fanciful flights embroidering this half of the evening come across as artificial afterthoughts, such as the superfluous "Choose to be Happy," a number sung by the positive-thinking evangelist Norman Vincent Peale, played by Hilliard. Always, though, the expert musicianship of the nine-member orchestra conducted by George Fulginiti-Shakar remains an asset. (With few exceptions, you can crisply hear the lyrics in Studio's Metheny Theatre.)
Fortunately, too, Frankel, Korie and Wright have the irresistible Beales to fall back on. After a night at "Grey Gardens," they're no more likely to be dislodged from your consciousness than they are from that wonderful mess of a house.
Grey Gardens, book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie. Directed by Serge Seiden. Set, Russell Metheny; choreography, Matthew Gardiner; lighting, Michael Lincoln; sound, Gil Thompson; music director, George Fulginiti-Shakar; projections, Erik Trester. With James Foster Jr. About 2 1/2 hours. Through Jan. 4 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit http://www.studiotheatre.org.