To enjoy “Far From Heaven” without reservation, it might help to stay away from Netflix.
The new musical about two forbidden loves (gay and interracial) in 1950s suburban Connecticut has opened at Playwrights Horizons with a first-rate cast of 18 led by the awe-inspiring Kelli O’Hara (South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza.) It features a score by the team that created “Grey Gardens,” and a book by Richard Greenberg, the playwright of “The Assembled Parties” and “Take Me Out.” Director Michael Greif, who helmed two Pulitzer-winning musicals, “Rent” and “Next to Normal,” now presides over a work that is sometimes touching, never boring.
The problem is that Netflix currently is streaming the original 2002 film starring Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid on which the musical is based. Filmmaker Todd Haynes wrote and directed a meticulous re-creation of the 1950s melodramas by director Douglas Sirk such as “All That Heaven Allows.” There is something amusing about the precision with which Haynes imitates Sirk, but the movie is not a parody, and it’s far more than a homage. In using a genre from the 1950s to tell the kind of story that would never have been told in that era, Haynes achieves both an original artistic vision and a form of political commentary.
The musical adaptation removes the filter, and undermines the irony. We are no longer looking at a work that is cleverly mimicking (and commenting on) a 1950s sensibility; it is simply set in the 1950s. The result is a straightforward presentation of the story of Cathy Whitaker (O’Hara), a wife and mother in suburban Hartford who is admired by her neighbors for her beauty and elegance, the handsomeness of her husband Frank (Steven Pasquale), and the orderliness of her family and her home – until she catches her husband at the office in the embrace of another man, and she finds herself comforted by, and drawn to, her black gardener Raymond Deagan (Isaiah Johnson.)
When in the film, Raymond is a paragon of dignity, wisdom and virtue, we can attribute the stilted characterization to the genre; this is how Sirk (in Haynes’s calculation) would have depicted Raymond, as someone more good than believably human. But what do we make of Raymond without that filtering consciousness, and what of the impossibly pure, proper connection that Cathy and Raymond make? There is not one drop of “Jungle Fever” here; they are soul-mates, friends; they barely touch one another. Only O’Hara’s and Johnson’s superior acting and a couple of engaging songs keep their inchoate relationship from migrating from the implausible into the ludicrous.
To their credit, the creative team resists any temptation to camp this up; the tone is earnest, and the plot is mostly faithful to the film’s. The main difference is the shift away from husband Frank. We no longer see him in a gay bar, and his moments of self-torment are abridged: Indeed, in the song “I Never Knew,” he more or less celebrates his sexuality — although, because as played by Steven Pasquale, he is not a sympathetic character, the audience is not encouraged to celebrate with him,
On the other hand, the team also seems to make little effort to translate the film’s filter into the idiom of the stage. For example: A choreographer is listed in the program, but if there was any dancing in this stage musical, it was literally not memorable. In startling contrast to the film, which carefully presented a brightly-lit Panavision world, the musical’s design seems largely an almost haphazard, low-budget affair, scenic designer Allen Moyer oddly relying heavily on an abstract contraption that could be scaffolding (or perhaps is meant to represent film equipment?). Peter Nigrini’s projections of the house’s exterior are small and banal. Lighting designer Kenneth Posner seems taken with the few scenes from the movie of Frank furtively on the prowl in the shadows, and inexplicably surrounds almost every scene in darkness. Only the spot-on costume design by multiple Tony winner Catherine Zuber captures in a heightened way the contradictory and intriguing primness and lushness of the era (or at least of the entertainments of the era), especially in the series of brightly monochromatic outfits for O’Hara.
Composer Scott Frankel’s score doesn’t try to emulate the sounds of the Fifties, and largely offers only serviceable melodies. Deliberately or not, the stand-out music in the show occurs when Cathy’s neighbors are gossiping about her, particularly in the jazzy song “Phone Talk,” as if to show us why such polite people would be attracted to such scary intolerance. (That music is far more effective in showing that intolerance than the awkward staging of the bullying of Raymond’s daughter.)
Michael Korie’s lyrics add some depth and subtlety to the two dozen or so songs. In “Sun and Shade,” Raymond and Cathy talk about plants but, like the Michael Jackson-Paul McCartney duet “Ebony and Ivory,” their words are a metaphor. It as if they are saying (without necessarily realizing that they are) that diversity is found in Nature, and so shouldn’t be any less natural in human interaction. Later, Raymond and Cathy meet at an art gallery opening, in front of a painting by Miro, and in the song “Miro” continue with the metaphor (“the interplay of light and shadow”) but also deepen their connection with one another (“Miro invites us to believe that world is filled with miracles/fantasy/playfulness/purity”)
Autumn leaves fall onto the stage in abundance at both the beginning and the ending of the musical “Far From Heaven.” It really should not matter that falling leaves bracket the movie too — or that the movie was borrowing a signature image from the movies of Douglas Sirk, an inspired move. There is not as much in the musical that is inspired, but those falling leaves are a lovely effect anyway, and there’s even a song that accompanies them, the un-ironically titled “Autumn in Connecticut.”
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Far From Heaven
Book by Richard Greenberg, music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie
based on the movie written and directed by Todd Haynes
Directed by Michael Greif
Scenic design by Allen Moyer, costume designer by Catherine Zuber, lighting design by Kenneth Posner, sound design by Nevin Steinberg, projection design by Peter Nigrini, wig and hair design by David Brian Brown
Quincy Tyler Bernstine
Justin Scott Brown
Sarah Jane Shanks
Running time: two hours ten minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
Ticket prices: “start at $80.”
Far From Heaven is scheduled to run through July 7, 2013. (Much of the run is sold out, so it seems likely it will be extended.)