Barbara Walsh and Barbara Broughton in Grey Gardens
(© Scott Suchman)
Barbara Walsh and Barbara Broughton in Grey Gardens
(© Scott Suchman)
Studio Theatre is not able to bring out the best in Doug Wright, Michael Korie and Scott Frankel's Broadway musical Grey Gardens, and the result feels like little more than a melodramatic chronicle of two members of American aristocracy, "Big Edith" and "Little Edie" Beale, who descend into squalid grotesqueness in Grey Gardens, an East Hampton mansion. Not even vividly effective production qualities, several affecting songs, and some pleasant performances can make this a fully worthwhile evening in the theater.

This pair of odd creatures, cousins of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, were discovered in the early 1970s living in Grey Gardens -- and their lives were chronicled in a fascinating 1975 documentary from filmmakers David and Albert Maysles. The musical hues closely to the film in act two; but, in act one, Wright's libretto attempts to provide context for the women's later lives by creating a highly fictionalized look at their earlier selves through a fictional party -- to celebrate the engagement of Little Edie (Jenna Sokolowski) and Navy pilot Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. (Matthew Stucky) -- held at the mansion in the summer of 1941. But the links which are supposed to provide the perspective on the two women's mental eccentricities and uncover how their relationship ultimately trapped both of them never materialize.

Big Edie (Barbara Walsh, in act one) is a self-indulgent, would-be-singer with Bohemian affectations who enjoys inflicting her garish sense of show-biz style on everyone within earshot. Worse, she deliberately sabotages the engagement, hoping to keep her daughter by her side. Here, Sokolowski is delightful as the younger version of Little Edie, a shimmering presence in the midst of family dysfunction. But there is no sign of the demented woman the character will become. Meanwhile, Walsh spends her time channeling Norma Desmond instead of creating an original character.

Act two jump cuts to three decades later, as the two Edies (with Walsh now as Little Edie and Barbara Broughton as Big Edie) are confined to the now-decrepit home, eating cat food. But we have no idea how and why their lives devolved to this point, and one gets the feeling that the intervening years might have made for a better musical story.

Moreover, director Serge Seiden doesn't seem to have challenged his actresses to go beyond recreating the facades of the characters the Maysles captured on film. That said, Walsh brilliantly performs "The Revolutionary Costume for Today," a comical fast-patter explanation of grown-up Little Edie's bizarre fashion sense, while Broughton's "Jerry Likes My Corn," a lovely waltz with unlikely lyrics, manages to be almost poignant as it hints at the emotional connection between mother and daughter.

Russell Metheny's set, with its revolving center and diaphanous screens evocatively lit by Michael Lincoln, effectively shows us Grey Gardens in its heyday and in its decline with a minimum of fuss. Alex Jaeger's colorful costumes say as much about the characters as anything else, especially for Little Edie in act two. It's too bad the musical itself doesn't have more to say.