Ambitious in conception if not in execution, Grey Gardens the musical is almost a wholly misguided attempt to bring the Maysles Brothers’ (also Ellen Hovde, Muffie Mayer and Susan Froemke’s) documentary to the stage. Let it be known that I think turning a piece of direct cinema into musical theater is a fascinating proposition that is very likely to fail. The 5th Avenue Theatre and ACT Theatre’s co-production of Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie’s musical isn’t an interesting, grand failure though; it’s simply a thoroughly mediocre piece of theater that fails to grasp what made both the film and its subject matter so fascinating.
Naturally, I don’t expect a musical to emulate the Maysles’ style (the absence of a single point of view via a camera makes this impossible), but their revolutionary observational approach yielded a haunting, multi-layered, deeply complex portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy’s aunt and cousin that was hilarious, poignant and disturbing simultaneously. The broadly drawn, relentlessly obvious musical adaptation is barely able to be one of these things at any given time, and its split-act structure serves up simplistic psychologizing of its central characters, making sure we understand that the difficulties of Act I were the point A that directly led to the squalor (emotional and otherwise) of Act II’s point B.
Its dubious structural qualities aside, Act I is a dreadfully dull pastiche of blueblood tropes set at the engagement party of Little Edie (Jessica Skerritt), set to be married to Joe Kennedy (Matt Owen). Her mother, Big Edie (Patti Cohenour), threatens to divert all the attention to herself with a program of nearly a dozen songs. Little Edie is furious, but she sees the light at the end of the tunnel—marrying and moving to New York City to escape the corpulent Hamptons mansion and lifestyle of her mother.
Photo: Tracy Martin
The entire act is likely total fiction, based on an offhand comment made by Little Edie and never corroborated by anyone else. That’s too bad for book writer Wright; he has no real-life events to blame for how stultifying this entire section is. (I have to mention that Wright wrote the stunning one-person play I Am My Own Wife, which deals with some similar themes in a far more insightful manner. So make no mistake, he is a hell of a writer.) The songs and dialogue reinforce in giant capital letters how impending romantic heartbreak is going to affect the lives of both Edies forever, while the clichéd peripheral characters—the fey pianist companion (Mark Anders), the longsuffering butler (Ekello J. Harrid Jr.) and a couple of adorable moppets (Analiese Emerson Guettinger, Montserrat Fleck), one of whom is little Jackie Bouvier (because why the hell not?) generate about the only interest.
Act II, set 30 years later in the same mansion, now filthy and neglected, borrows its dialogue and scenarios heavily from the film, which automatically gives it a leg up on everything that preceded it. It’s too bad large parts of this section are cluttered up with the supporting cast, who appear in a number of dream/fantasy musical numbers. Too much stage time is also devoted to handyman Jerry (Owen again), whose status has been upgraded significantly from his appearance in the film to an object of intense competition between Big Edie (Suzy Hunt) and Little Edie (Cohenour again).
The musical transforms their relationship from the strangely codependent one seen in the film to something of the banal “dysfunctional but loving” variety. The conclusion really leans hard on this idea, injecting some hollow dramatic agency into Little Edie’s character to deliver an overbearingly heartwarming shot of uplift to send the audience out smiling.
While the book is just a mess, the songs by Frankel and Korie are mostly serviceable, and a couple of Act II numbers (“Entering Grey Gardens” especially) run with the pop cultural idea of the Beales as camp figures. This perception misses a lot of the nuance of the Maysles’ film, but at least it’s a point of view more interesting than the “women damaged by the world find solace in each other” angle going on here. If the writers were insistent on throwing subtlety out the door, at least they could have opted to go for full-blown kitsch.
While I’m not sure the musical ever really justifies its existence as a musical, the songs are done no favors by the decision to stage the show in ACT’s Allen Theatre in the round, which offers no space for an orchestra. With the live music piped in and some inconsistent microphone levels, the songs lose some of their power and can feel almost incidental far too often.
If you do see Grey Gardens, at least you can be content knowing you’ll get to see a tour de force performance by Broadway legend Cohenour, who can turn a subpar text into something special with her substantive, fully committed portrayals of two characters. Also in the plus column is Matthew Smucker’s scenic design, which creates a mansion’s dimension of space by virtue of several platforms that raise and lower.
Nonetheless, Grey Gardens is pretty much a disappointment through and through. Fire up the Maysles’ masterpiece on DVD instead. Grey Gardens is on stage at ACT through June 2. Tickets are available for purchase online.