Thursday, June 20, 2013

36. Review of FAR FROM HEAVEN (June 19, 2013)


The premise of Todd Hayne’s 2002 film, FAR FROM HEAVEN, which is the source of this only sporadically interesting musical at Playwrights Horizons, is rich with promise. It is set largely in 1957, during the Eisenhower era, when racial problems were coming to a head during the Civil Rights movement and when homosexuality remained a scandalous and forbidden practice; it also takes the artistic step of replicating the style of Hollywood director Douglas Sirk, famed for his lush, adult-themed Technicolor melodramas, such as MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, IMITATION OF LIFE, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, and WRITTEN ON THE WIND. The musical version faithfully reflects the themes, plot, and style of the film, which starred Julianne Moore as Cathy Whitaker, the epitome of suburban domesticity, Dennis Quaid as her secretly gay husband, Frank, and Dennis Haysbert as Raymond Deagan, the black gardener who befriends Cathy. In Michel Greif’s smooth but superficial production, those roles are played by Kelli O’Hara, Steven Pasquale, and Isaiah Johnson, each of whom offers a fine, if not especially memorable, performance.

            For those who don’t remember or never saw the movie, let it suffice to say that Cathy is the embodiment of 1950s middle-class, white, suburban domesticity, the Betty Crocker or June Cleaver ideal familiar from TV shows and films of the period. The mother of two usually well-behaved kids, a boy, David (Jake Lucas), and a girl, Janice (Julianna Rigoglioso), she lives in a carefully decorated home in Hartford, CT, that she runs with the help of a kindly black maid, Sybil (Quincy Tyler Bernstine). She is refined (she cautions her boy not to swear when he says “Shucks”), soft-spoken, caring, and repressed. Her husband, Frank, goes to business in an advertising company but increasingly has been coming home late. The family is taken aback when he is arrested one night for “loitering.” But Cathy ultimately finds out the hard way about what he’s been doing, and psychological therapy is introduced, as per the period’s beliefs. Meanwhile, Raymond Deagan, a black man (colored or Negro in the period’s terminology), with a little girl of his own, befriends Cathy. He is not only attractive but highly cultured, as demonstrated in an overreaching art gallery scene where he tosses off an analysis of Joan Miró’s paintings. But Hartford, even in 1957, seems not far removed from the deep South in its racial prejudices and gossip soon puts its dent in the relationship.

One of the serious weaknesses in the story, but an element that makes it all so reminiscent of 1950s writing in sociologically oriented potboilers, is the need to make Raymond such a paragon of cultural knowledge and racial sensitivity. Book writer Richard Greenberg, whose play THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES was one of the best plays of last season, hews closely to the movie script, but it would have helped if he could have done something to trim the abundance of clichés and stereotypes, and find a more original voice in depicting this bygone era.

            To embody the multi-scened production with cinematic fluidity, set designer Allen Moyer has created a flexible environment of easily movable scaffolding capable of creating multiple configurations, from an elevator to a modernistic suburban home with floating steps, with Kenneth Posner’s lighting enhancing every moment. Scenic units noiselessly rise from the floor and sink back into it in seconds, and Peter Nigrini has crafted fine projections to evoke specific indoor and outdoor locations as well as the seasonal background; unfortunately, they are often blocked from view by the scaffolding. Catherine Zuber’s period costumes perfectly capture what the mostly well-heeled, well-dressed residents—especially the women—of a suburban Connecticut town might have worn, and everyone looks as if they stepped from an ad in LIFE or THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. Ms. O’Hara’s costumes, with their full skirts and cinched waists, can’t quite hide the pregnant actress’s growing embonpoint, but it is to her credit that she races through what must be a tremendously fatiguing role, with its 19 costume changes, without skipping a beat.

              Neither the music nor the lyrics are impressive, but the music is probably the greatest problem. As in so many other contemporary musicals (all of which seem to be by the same composer, whatever the name on the program is), the music is dedicated to moving the story along and tries to express the emotions and thoughts the characters are experiencing. This leads to a monotonous quality that often sounds like heightened recitative, with melody jettisoned for emotional expressiveness. Yet, far from creating an emotional reaction in the audience, the effect is cerebral and none of the songs ever wraps itself around your heart and makes you want to sing it. In FAR FROM HEAVEN, not a single number, if such they can be called, received more than polite applause when I attended, and many received none because they were so tightly sewn into the dramatic action that there was no space for the audience to react.  

Ms. O’Hara demonstrates again why she is one of the most respected singers on or off Broadway. I don’t think her acting as Cathy is particularly deep or interesting (she overuses the same fluttery hand gestures when being dismissive), and there is a flatness to her scenes (as there is to much else on view), but when she sings she always captures your attention. FAR FROM HEAVEN is far from heavenly but, because of the talent involved and the intriguing subject matter, musical theatre aficionados will want to see it. As for everybody else, I have my doubts.