Book: Doug Wright; Music: Scott Frankel; Lyrics: Michael Korie. At: Jedlicka Performing Arts Center, 3801 S. Central, Cicero. Phone: 708-656-1800; $15-$17. Runs through: Jan. 29
Anyone who has ever seen the 1975 cult documentary Grey Gardens knows that watching the film is similar to being unable to turn away from observing a slow-motion car accident. It's simultaneously fascinating and lamentable to watch former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' eccentric elderly aunt (Edith "Big Edie" Bouvier Beale) and middle-aged cousin (Edith "Little Edie" Bovier Beale) living amid such squalor in their decaying summer house called Grey Gardens in East Hampton, N.Y.
For better or worse, this car accident analogy also applies to the 2006 musical Grey Gardens at the Jedlicka Performing Arts Center in Cicero. This daring theater company is commendable for tackling challenging and off-kilter material, plus they're savvy to do Grey Gardens after all the buzz generated by the award-winning 2009 HBO film drama starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.
Alas, the Jedlicka only does partial justice to Grey Gardens, a sophisticated and delicate musical by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. For every plus in Jedlicka's Grey Gardens, there are about two minuses that detract from the company's ambitious stab at the material.
This dichotomy is seen in Michael Nedza's set design of the house itself, which isn't nearly as expensive-looking in the musical's first act or as squalid as it should look in the second. Other flubs are major like in the case of the frequently blaring loud sound design, or minor like the leading ladies' Act I wigs that don't sit quite right on their heads.
At least the performances under the direction of Michael A. Kott seem to show more polish, even if there's room for improvement. I would have liked Mary Nigohsian to be far more patrician and visibly crumbling-inside as Big Edie in Act I, though she was far more comfortable and convincing as the unconventionally fashionable Little Edie in Act II.
Mary Hobein's doddering Big Edie in Act II is spot on (if a little too sprightly), while Jill Sesso's Little Edie in Act I shows plenty of ingénue energy show-biz panache (though her Long Island accent was nonexistent).
Charles Lane Cowen looked far more comfortable as the comical Act II handyman Jerry instead of his Act I take on the ambitious Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Gary Saipe's big booming voice worked well for radio preacher Norman Vincent Beale and the moneyed grandfather "Major" Bouvier, while Austin Cook was more than appropriately fey and sloshed as the composer/pianist George Gould Strong.
Although the design elements of Jedlicka's Grey Gardens won't satisfy the die-hard fans of the documentary, the human side of musical's depiction of lost youth, stifled talent and unfulfilled dreams still shines vividly through. And that makes a trip to Jedlicka's Grey Gardens otherwise worthwhile.