ST. PETERSBURG — Grey Gardens should be sad, but it isn't.
High society mother and daughter fallen on hard times, living out their days in a crumbling mansion on Long Island, boiling corn on the cob on a hot plate between their beds. That's the story told in the Maysles Brothers' revered documentary from the '70s, and in an oddball way, the musical inspired by the film is one of the most affecting portraits of a family to be seen on stage.
FreeFall Theatre deserves a big bravo for opening its season with Grey Gardens, which is the sort of Broadway musical that is too small or exotic to have a national tour but complicated enough to discourage a lot of regional theaters from putting it on. Directed by Eric Davis, this production gets enough right — especially with its three leading ladies — that you wonder why there haven't been more musicals by its authors: Doug Wright (book), Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics).
Wyn Wilson is the star of Grey Gardens, as she plays both Edith Bouvier Beale, 79, and daughter "Little" Edie, 57 — aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In the first act flashback, she is Edith in her moneyed prime, a lethal combination of Wall Street tycoon's wife and that "most pitiable of creatures ... an actress without a stage," as her father, Major Bouvier (Michael Edwards) puts it. In Act 2, she plays the middle-aged daughter, unable to leave her mother.
The Revolutionary Costume for Today is Little Edie's tour de force in the second act, and Wilson absolutely nails it in her raspy, adenoidal Noo Yawk delivery. But one of the most moving moments comes in Act 1 when Wilson's Edith, humiliated by her father, has to be coaxed into performing the mother-daughter duet, Peas in a Pod, by Katie Zaffrann's Little Edie. Later, Zaffrann gives a performance of Daddy's Girl so passionate that it feels comparable in impact and power to Rose's Turn in Gypsy. Ann Hurst has just the right touch of go-to-hell zaniness to portray the aged Edith in The Cake I Had, her summing-up song.
The other star of the show is costume designer Ty Christine Massola, who has come up with some wonderful concoctions, like Edith's Madame Butterfly outfit. Think Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Tom Hansen's scenic design of a blue clapboard "beach cottage" features a revolving stage that gets spun a little too often.
Technically, a couple of things annoyed me about the production, which I saw on Sunday afternoon. For one thing, the theater was configured as a three-quarter thrust stage, with seating in front and on both sides of the playing area. Sometimes, this arrangement left a good portion of the audience, those on the sides, not being directly addressed by the actors.
Normally, I wouldn't gripe about lack of amplification in freeFall's intimate space, but several of the actors — Byron DeMent's Gould, Edith's pianist, in particular — were hard to hear. Small microphones were hung amid the lights, but they were there to enable the band to hear the performance. The six-piece band, led by Michael Raabe, was in another room, and its contribution was piped into the theater. As a result, the band's music seemed somewhat recessed and disconnected from what was happening on stage. If you're going to hire those musicians, let's hear them.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.