June 5, 2013

“Far From Heaven” is Too Aloof To Love

Nostalgia for the 1950s, the childhood years of the baby boomers, will probably hold strong as long as the boomers do.  But, as the TV series “Mad Men” has shown, ruminations about those days work best when tempered with a sharp awareness of the coming events—civil rights, feminism, gender equailty—that will eventually break open that circumscribed world. Far From Heaven, which opened at Playwrights Horizons on Sunday, beautifully evokes the look and sound of that era but it lacks that requisite ironic edge and ends up as emotionally repressed as the time in which it is set.

And I can’t tell you how much that disappoints me.  The 2002 movie on which this new musical is based, is one of my all-time favorites. Indie filmmaker Todd Haynes paid loving homage to Hollywood director Douglas Sirk, who specialized in big, romantic melodramas that usually centered around women quietly frustrated by the proprieties of midcentury society.
Haynes' film maintained Sirk’s aesthetics—super-saturated colors and a lush musical score—but updated the storylines to deal head-on with the once-taboo subjects of homosexuality and racism. 

In both his movie and the musical, Cathy, an affluent white housewife discovers that her husband is a closeted gay man and finds solace in a relationship with her African-American gardener, both scandalously unacceptable behaviors in her country-club world.

The pain caused by the constraints of the Eisenhower era moved me. And the material—right down to the comic relief provided by Cathy’s wry best friend—seemed ready-made for a similarly affective musical.   

So I kicked myself when I failed to get up to the Williamstown Theatre Festival when Far From Heaven debuted there last summer. And when I read that Playwrights Horizons planned to mount the play this spring, I subscribed for its entire season just so that I would be sure to get tickets.  
Good thing I did that, too, because the entire run for Far From Heaven sold out (as in no tickets available) even before previews began. And extensions are unlikely because, as is widely known and plain to see despite Catherine Zuber’s cleverly designed outfits, the show’s star Kelli O’Hara is pregnant and already showing; a rounder belly would undermine the believability of a woman who can’t get her husband to sleep with her. 

There’s plenty else about the show to like beyond Zuber’s gorgeous dresses. But every good element seems to require a caveat. 
As a fan of the movie, I appreciate that playwright Richard Greenberg, who had three shows open this season (this one plus the ill-fated Breakfast at Tiffany's and the more successful The Assembled Parties) has written a book that is so set-piece-by-set-piece faithful to the film. 

But Greenberg has taken the material so seriously that much of the life has been leached out of it. The show might have had more theatrical vitality if he’d been less reverential.  

Meanwhile, director Michael Greif, the man behind such emotionally satisfying musicals as Grey Gardens, Next to Normal and Rent, has given the show a cinematic feel with the use of scene-setting video projections that play against an ERECTOR-style set designed by Allen Moyer. 

But despite helpful lighting by Kenneth Posner, the interplay between the actors is often overshadowed and seems removed, which only underscored the show’s aloofness.
The score is by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, the award-wining duo who wrote Grey Gardens, and it echoes the big sweeping melodies that defined the romantic movies of the post-war era. (Click here to read about how they put the score together). 

But while the songs are pretty and unafraid of metaphors, this is largely a sung-through show and it can be difficult to understand all of the lyrics, at least on first hearing. 
However, I have no reservations when it comes to the performances. O’Hara is radiant as Cathy; there’s always been a Grace Kelly quality about her and it works wonderfully here. 

Also good are Steven Pasquale as her anguished husband Frank and relative newcomer Isaiah Johnson as the gardener Raymond, a sensitive and well-educated man struggling to find his own space during America's apartheid years  (click here to hear an audio interview with Johnson). 

The rest of the 15-member ensemble is strong too, particularly Nancy Anderson as Cathy's best friend and Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who brings knowing empathy to the small and almost silent role of the family's maid.
And yet, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.  Both my husband K and I walked out of the theater totally unmoved by what we'd seen.  And that’s too far away from heaven for any show to be.

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