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NEW YORK – Composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie demonstrated their refined talent for shaping challenging material into emotionally resonant musical theater with Grey Gardens in 2006. With help from playwright Richard Greenberg, the same team delivers a flawed but compelling work of delicate nuances and lingering rewards in Far From Heaven. While the Playwrights Horizons stage seems too confining for the show’s lush flights of feeling and cinematic flourishes, this is an intelligent, ambitious piece that deserves a future life.
The musical allows Kelli O’Hara to create a penetrating character study of a woman who has built her adult life around the rigidly defined role of 1950s wife, mother and homemaker, just as the 2002 Todd Haynes film on which it’s based was a superlative vehicle for Julianne Moore. Examining how secrets, intolerance, hypocrisy and suffocating small-town social mores shatter the illusion of a picture-perfect existence, Haynes masterfully harnessed the tone and style of the mid-century screen melodrama, most pointedly Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. The striking quality of Far From Heaven was its head-on approach to issues that would have been restricted to subtext in the films to which it was paying homage.
While Greenberg’s book sticks close to Haynes’ script, Michael Greif’s production aims to find theatrical equivalents for the movie’s appropriation of stylized screen tropes to expose complex emotional truths.
Greenberg has expanded upon the modern art exhibition scene from the film, adding commentary about how every image – even the most abstract – is open to individual interpretation based on personal experience. Arguably the production’s least successful stroke is adopting that idea as its design cue.
Splashed with projections that are more effective in poetic than literal mode, Allen Moyer’s set is like a Mondrian jungle gym. Its multipart segments fracture the view of both public appearance and private reality in the tight-knit WASP community of Hartford, Conn., in 1957. It’s a bold visual device, but rather than intensifying the focus, it applies a layer of distancing artificiality. However, the strength of the cast, the integrity of the writing and the ravishing beauty of the music far outweigh the production’s more questionable choices.
An incandescent picture in Catherine Zuber’s impeccable costumes, O’Hara plays Cathy Whitaker, the model of domestic accomplishment and societal poise, admired by the women in her well-heeled suburban circle and quietly coveted by their husbands. When she discovers that her own spouse, the handsome, athletic sales executive Frank (Steven Pasquale), has surrendered to long-suppressed homosexual desires, Cathy’s carefully composed world crumbles.
Unable to confide even in her closest friend Eleanor (Nancy Anderson, sublime in the film’s acerbic Patricia Clarkson role), Cathy responds to the gentle overtures of friendship from the Whitakers’ widowed black gardener Raymond Deagan (Isaiah Johnson). But gossip sullies that connection even before it flowers, giving Cathy a taste of outsider experience and sparking sorrowful consequences for them both. In the show’s quietly affecting concluding scenes, the sense of regret is palpable for what might have developed between these thwarted lovers in a more forgiving environment.
While the roiling sentiments, surging passions and crushing sadness of melodrama have become anachronistic in the age of cynical self-awareness, the musical is a forum that lends itself to such turbulent peaks. Frankel and Korie display a sophisticated grasp of that match of form and content, never once feeling the need to undercut the story’s emotional impact by winking at modern audience sensibilities. Equally striking for its melodic richness and the cleverness of its lyrics, the gorgeous score weaves together supple romantic themes with hard-edged jazz riffs that evoke Leonard Bernstein, foreshadowing the growing ferment of social change.
Unlike such numbers from Grey Gardens as “The Revolutionary Costume for Today” or the wrenching “Another Winter in a Summer Town,” there are few if any songs here that, at least on a first listen, suggest they are ripe for performance outside of this context. But as a narrative that’s either sung or played out over sumptuous underscoring, this is an audaciously melancholy work whose book and score are very much of an organic piece. The somber transition from the serenity of the opening song, “Autumn in Connecticut,” to the cracked illusion of its final reprise makes this a haunting, uncommonly serious contemporary musical.
Greif at times struggles to make quick-cut cinematic transitions flow onstage, but his direction of the actors is faultless. Those who know Pasquale only from his television work on Rescue Me will be bowled over by his powerful vocal skills. He makes the most of a difficult role that, despite its catalyst effect, remains purely in the service of the central character’s arc. Johnson has more to chew on with Raymond, and he brings tenderness and emotional transparency to the soulful part. As the Whitakers’ observant maid Sybil, Quincy Tyler Bernstine contributes indelibly to the show’s acknowledgment of the strict divisions of race and class that existed even in seemingly liberal New England.
But this is in every sense Cathy’s story, and the subdued, largely internalized nature of her journey may be the material’s greatest hurdle in terms of wide audience acceptance. Still, with her silken vocals, her innate grace and porcelain vulnerability, O’Hara effortlessly conveys the stage equivalent of a screen close-up. Not to undervalue the elegance of Kenneth Posner’s moody lighting, with its warm autumnal hues giving way to troubling shadows, but O’Hara seems illuminated from within.
Irrespective of whether the show undergoes additional development that might eventually steer it to Broadway, Far From Heaven represents the continuation of an impressively fertile period for Playwrights Horizons. Following on the heels of strong plays from Annie Baker, Samuel D. Hunter, Amy Herzog, Lisa D’Amour, Gina Gionfriddo, Tanya Barfield and others, the musical further consolidates this Off Broadway company’s standing among the premier incubators of new American theater.
Venue: Playwrights Horizons, New York (runs through July 7)
Cast: Kelli O’Hara, Steven Pasquale, Isaiah Johnson, Nancy Anderson, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, J.B. Adams, Marinda Anderson, Elainey Bass, Justin Scott Brown, Alma Cuervo, Korey Jackson, Jake Lucas, James Moye, Julianna Rigoglioso, Sarah Jane Shanks, Tess Soltau, Mary Stout, Victor Wallace
Director: Michael Greif
Book: Richard Greenberg, based on the Focus Features/Vulcan Productions motion picture written and directed by Todd Haynes
Music: Scott Frankel
Lyrics: Michael Korie
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Sound designer: Nevin Steinberg
Projection designer: Peter Nigrini
Choreographer: Alex Sanchez
Music director: Lawrence Yurman
Orchestrations: Bruce Coughlin
Executive producers: Denise Wood, Andre Ptaszynski
Presented by Playwrights Horizons
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