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Far From Heaven

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Kelli O'Hara and Isaiah Johnson
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The beauty of illusions and the heartbreak one incurs when they begin to fade is both the subject of the new musical Far From Heaven and its chief stumbling block. As much as you may want to love this well-intentioned look at a mid-20th-century housewife who tries to hold herself together as her traditional concepts of marriage and her society shift beneath her feet, nothing about the turgid tuner that has just opened at Playwrights Horizons makes doing so easy.

This is because no one involved, from librettist Richard Greenberg, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Korie to director Michael Greif, to the members of the sterling-on-paper cast led by Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale, has given Far From Heaven the one thing it needs most: a reason for being. So even when themes of homosexuality and racism pierce the pristine façade of Hartford, Connecticut, in 1957, and threaten to draw both figurative and literal blood, you're never inspired to do much more than yawn.

If this is regrettable, it's also at least somewhat understandable given the work's provenance. The 2002 Todd Haynes source film of the same name introduced Everymom Cathy Whitaker, who discovers her husband, Frank, fooling around with other men, and finds the solace she needs in her non-sexual relationship with an African-American gardener named Raymond Deagan. There were strong anchoring portrayals from Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid, and Dennis Haysbert, but what most elevated the movie was its distinct style, which intensely echoed the era's Douglas Sirk melodramas in its lush cinematography and its sweeping Elmer Bernstein score.

Those elements did not necessarily replace content, but they did amplify it into an experience that resonated more deeply than the sum of its parts would hint as being possible. But in removing them for the stage, the creative team has not replaced them with theatrical equivalents capable of disguising or remedying the plot's inherent thinness on their own terms. Instead, the writers have recast Cathy's journey from naïveté to true adulthood in the nearly sung-through terms of chamber operetta, but without latching on to either the richness of action or the robustness of emotion required to make such an approach successful.

Cathy's transformation, after all, is almost entirely an internal one. Aside from discovering Frank with another man and pursuing her friendship with Raymond, she does little except observe the world around her and gently reposition herself to turn in its same direction. That offers limited opportunities for vividity as is, but the confines become more cramped still when scene after scene of rambling, tune-challenged recitative finds Cathy singing as much about paint and fabric samples, the social register, and modern art, as she does her husband's scandalous infidelities and her reflections thereon.

Reducing the songs to circuitous chit-chat drastically reduces their impact; even pop operas like Les Misérables and Miss Saigon managed to pop in a few "arias" and production numbers in among the "dialogue" in a way Far From Heaven never seems able to manage. The result is a musical that, despite its wall-to-wall music (Lawrence Yurman is the musical director, the fine '50s-appropriate orchestrations are by Bruce Coughlin), behaves as if it has no interest in singing. (Frankel and Korie's previous Broadway score, for Grey Gardens, their imperfect spin on an even more difficult film, did not have this problem.)

Kelli O'Hara and Nancy Anderson
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Only the opening sequence, which juxtaposes the changing of the seasons with that of one's notions of life, considers genuine lyrical possibilities—avenues that are shut down once it becomes clear Frankel and Korie don't plan to escort the score from conventionality to something tarter and more unique as Cathy evolves in similar ways. For his book, Greenberg has drawn heavily from Haynes, but has not expanded on or even further explored his ideas; and because most of the dialogue is sung, his lines are few and far between and almost invariably land with a cool clunk.

But there's a pervasive chilliness about everything. Greif keeps you at a stiff distance with his staging, which draws no distinctions between the warmth of Cathy's initial utopia and the more jagged existence into which she's later thrust. The scenic design, with Allen Moyer's lifeless unit set recalling the static boards-and-pipes designs Greif also utilized in Rent, Next to Normal, and Giant, and Peter Nigrini's projections applying uneven doses of color and animation to the backdrop, don't help as much as they should. (Catherine Zuber's costumes and Kenneth Posner's lights are markedly more successful at identifying time, place, and feeling.)

As good as the cast members have been in other shows, not a one is used to his or her full potential here. O'Hara's natural appeal is smothered beneath the boringly conceived Cathy, and she's received no support in making the woman a striking personality without access to the vivacity or sumptuous near-operatic singing that has marked all of O'Hara's best performances in New York. (I'd never have thought it possible, but most of her singing this time around resembles one-level caterwauling rather than the surging yearning necessary.)

Pasquale never justifies Frank's behavior, leaving the character a blank-slate catalyst that contributes nothing to the evening's texture; he's also saddled with all the dullest songs and potentially compelling moments that are never allowed to bloom beyond forgettability. Isaiah Johnson lacks any charisma as Raymond, pulling yet another punch from his crucial scenes with Cathy. Mary Stout and Quincy Tyler Bernstein, respectively playing a nosy newspaper columnist and Cathy's doting maid, are unable to wring flavor from what ought to be zesty supporting roles.

Nancy Anderson is the only actor who infuses a character with any bite. In her hands, Cathy's questionable friend Eleanor becomes an agent of covert chaos, pointedly suggesting the darker forces that will slowly consume everyone around them. Anderson keeps you guessing about Eleanor's preferences and motives for a long time—well after the rest of the show has abandoned any attempts at complexity.

It's exactly that kind of layering at every level that would benefit Far From Heaven and let it become a vibrant evocation of period rather than the listless snoozer it currently is. Given that the story is about recognizing dreams within the boundaries of a harsh reality and finding ways to bring them to life, it's odd and unfortunate that the show containing it is able to identify no dramatic aspirations of its own.

Far From Heaven
Through July 7
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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