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Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

Far From Heaven
SpeakEasy Stage Company in the Roberts Studio Theatre


Jennifer Ellis

It used to be that book musicals followed a certain format, but, in recent decades, the range of styles of musical theater has pushed the edges of the envelope in all directions, from the mostly sung-through works of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh and Jonathan Larson, to jukebox musicals, to John Doyle's conceit of having his actors double as musicians. In Far From Heaven, now in its Boston premiere at the SpeakEasy Stage Company, the team of composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie (the creators of Grey Gardens) has developed a quasi-operatic style of their own, inserting distinctive musical motifs to depict characters and using grand, soaring musical passages to communicate emotions which cannot be spoken.

Based on the 2002 film of the same name by Todd Haynes, the lush musical is set in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1957, and reflects the repression and societal conformity of the Zeitgeist of the Eisenhower era. Tony Award-winner Richard Greenberg's book maintains the plot, even as the score provides the deep subtext in the lives of Cathy and Frank Whitaker, Raymond Deagan, and the friends and neighbors who comprise their claustrophobic world. The musical's creative team also hews to Haynes' homage to the 1950s melodramas of film director Douglas Sirk. Director Scott Edmiston and his designers collaborate to convey the quality of Sirk's style, notably the conformity of color (e.g., red dress, red backdrop, red lighting) in many scenes and sharply focusing on the communal mentality of obeisance to established norms.

Far From Heaven is the story of a 1950s housewife whose apparently perfect life is the envy of all her friends. Her hunk of a husband is a successful businessman and they live in a nice home with their two wonderful children (with an assist from their wonderful maid). When Cathy (a luminous Jennifer Ellis) inadvertently discovers Frank's (a dark, brooding Jared Troilo) secret sexual proclivities, their marriage - and her world - begins to crumble. Raymond (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), the African-American gardener, becomes Cathy's confidante and safe haven, despite the taboo against mixing with a different race, let alone class, and the disapproving looks and gossip they ignite.

Edmiston has many challenges with this production, among them managing a cast of eighteen which includes three children, but he has Music Director Steven Bergman along to help make sure that the characters are revealed by the music. Each of the principals has a specific sound (think Peter and the Wolf) that we come to recognize when an entrance is made. Most of the musical numbers resemble melodic conversations, rather than songs, testing the vocal skills of the cast and leaving the audience in a quandary with few obvious places to applaud. Choreographer David Connolly's dances are stylized to fit the music and the era, such as the workers in the background at Frank's office ("Office Talk") and the couples at the Stardust Room in Havana.

Ellis is definitely the brightest star in this firmament and reason alone to see Far From Heaven. Her voice is heavenly and her persona exudes warmth, highlighted by deep dimples and a genuine smile. In the early scenes, Cathy is fairly one-dimensional as the modest, perfect wife and mother, but the role goes through major changes and Ellis is on top of her game when she has to go deep. She often has to quickly shift expressions, like when she notices a man wandering in the yard and warily confronts him, only to relax and be cordial to him when Raymond introduces himself; or when she surprises Frank at his office and gets quite a surprise herself, she turns on a dime from the cheery "meals-on-wheels" gal to a stunned, deer-in-headlights reaction, looking like she's about to be sick. That scene begins her transformation and it is fascinating to watch Ellis as Cathy's life crumbles, almost in slow motion, and the steps she takes to keep up appearances, as well as the tenuous steps she takes on the path of forbidden friendship.

Troilo conveys the self-assurance of Frank, the businessman, and the angst and anger of Frank, the guy with the terrible secret. He projects an underlying discomfort in his scenes with Ellis, and his singing voice expresses the pain, confusion and joy he feels when he finally comes to terms with his new life ("I Never Knew"). Raymond is always polite and respectful, behaving as if he "knows his place," but harboring a quiet strength of character. Parent is understated in this difficult role which requires him to state an abundance of platitudes. Aimee Doherty, as Cathy's close friend Eleanor Fine, handles both sides of her character (staunch supporter and betrayed turncoat) with conviction, and Carolyn Saxon's maid (Sybil) raises the standard for what could be a stereotypical role by her sincerity.

Will McGarrahan does a fine turn as the doctor Frank turns to for a cure (ironic since McGarrahan also plays a fellow "loiterer" in a well-choreographed scene with Troilo), and virtually channels Truman Capote in his characterization of a New York art dealer. Kerry A. Dowling captures the personalities of the gossipy Mrs. Leacock and Doris Decker, a society dame. Speaking of gossips, Ellen Peterson's performance as Mona Lauder is evocative of everyone's nosiest neighbor, and Terrence O'Malley plays Eleanor's husband Stan Fine as the ultimate office sexist creep. Tyler Lenhart and Michael Levesque appear as Frank's trysts, and Jennifer Mischley and Rachel Gianna Tassio are the other women in Cathy's circle. Darren Bunch and Carla Martinez are representative of the people of color in the town who disapprove of Raymond and Cathy's attachment, and Bunch impresses as the Band Crooner ("Wandering Eyes"). Sophia Mack is sweet and shy as Raymond's daughter, and Audree Hedequist and Josh Sussman play the Whitaker kids with personality.

I would be remiss if I did not lavish praise on Charles Schoonmaker for one of the finest collections of costumes ever assembled. Ellis appears in a different dress in nearly every scene and wears them well. The attention to detail to match the period includes hose with seams, head scarves or hats for the women, and hats and topcoats for the men. As mentioned earlier, the colors of the clothing meld with the scenery and lighting, but Cathy's outfits also establish the palette for the dresses worn by the other women who share her scenes.

Far From Heaven adapts well to the stage, focusing as it does on the interpersonal relationships and the challenging journeys of individual characters, and using the music to enhance the story. Although a theatrical version cannot offer the larger-than-life closeups that film employs, Edmiston and the SpeakEasy Stage Company are able to give us an up close and personal experience in the intimate space of the Roberts Studio Theatre. If you lived during the Eisenhower era or have watched reruns of 50s television and movies, you will have an appreciation for the look achieved here. Regardless of the level of your knowledge of that time, viewing the mores of this story through the lens of our millennium is eye-opening. Nearly six decades later, it is interesting to note how much has changed, but race and class differences continue to divide these United States. Post-racial, indeed.

Far From Heaven performances through October 11 at SpeakEasy Stage Company, in the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 to www.SpeakEasyStage.com.

Book by Richard Greenberg, Music by Scott Frankel, Lyrics by Michael Korie, Based on the Focus Features/Vulcan Productions Motion Picture Written & Directed by Todd Haynes; Directed by Scott Edmiston, Musical Direction by Steven Bergman, Choreography by David Connolly; Scenic Design, Eric Levenson; Costume Design, Charles Schoonmaker; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Sound Design, Noah Thomas; Production Stage Manager, Dawn Schall Saglio; Assistant Stage Managers, Tareena D. Wimbish, Alycia Marucci

Cast (in alphabetical order): Darren Bunch, Aimee Doherty, Kerry A. Dowling, Jennifer Ellis, Audree Hedequist, Tyler Lenhart, Michael Levesque, Sophia Mack, Carla Martinez, Will McGarrahan, Jennifer Mischley, Terrence O'Malley, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Ellen Peterson, Carolyn Saxon, Josh Sussman, Rachel Gianna Tassio, Jared Troilo


Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective



- Nancy Grossman



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