Musical Theater / Theater

Far From Heaven: A New Musical based on the 2002 film at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

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From left to right: Charlie Plummer, Alexa Niziak, and Kelli O’Hara in a scene from Far From Heaven. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Book by Richard Greenberg
Music by Scott Frankel
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Direction by Michael Greif
Musical Direction by Lawrence Yurman

Starring: Kelli O’Hara, Brandon Victor Dixon, Steven Pasquale, Nancy Anderson, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Alison Fraser, Chris Hoch, Sarah Jane Everman, Kate Hamilton, Mary Stout, Tony Yazbeck, Charlie Plummer, Alexa Niziak

In 1957 society could be cruel to those who were different. Cathy Whitaker, a young Connecticut housewife and mother of two, is different. When her friends sing of once-a-week sex with their husbands, she is silent. Her husband Frank is different; he is gay. When Cathy learns his truth, she seeks solace with her sympathetic gardener, Raymond, also different, a “Negro,” a “gardening Nat King Cole.” Her neighbors gossip with relish. When Raymond takes her to his neighborhood café where he thinks they will be safe, she is ostracized because there, as a white woman, she is different. Cathy is trapped in a conformist marriage with repression, denial and pretense her only defenses.

This is the story, the sorrow, of Far From Heaven, a profound and beautiful new musical making its debut at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It will run through July 29th only. Under the aegis of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to Playwrights Horizons in partnership with a regional theatre, Far From Heaven is based on the Todd Haynes movie of the same title that starred Julianne Moore as Cathy. WTF bills the show as a preview musical, but don’t you believe it. With a few tweaks, this production is more than ready to take New York City and eventually Broadway by storm when it officially premieres at Playwrights Horizons next spring.

As the short, haunting overture begins, the stage is black. Soon lighted columns of autumn leaves drift down. Photographs of trees and a white clapboard house are projected in rectangles of various sizes at the back of the stage, and a red-haired Cathy enters in a bright, rust-colored coat with copious crinolines underneath. She sings of autumn in Connecticut as her children dart on and off stage interrupting her song with dialogue. Her neighbors enter and the stage, though bare of scenery, is filled with life and warmth. The scenic design by Allen Moyer, the lighting by Kenneth Posner and the costumes by Catherine Zuber blend together to create the rich, Technicolor feeling that provide both the movie and this production with warmth and deception.

The music, lyrics and book are also stars of Far From Heaven. The show is nearly an opera with music often played under the small amount of dialogue. The melodic and sometimes jazzy songs are a vehicle for the story and, except for two numbers that poke fun at 50s nightclub music in Miami, they also convey character. The transition between  dialogue and lyrics is seamless. One assumes great collaboration between the author of the book, Richard Greenberg (Tony winner for Take Me Out), and the Grey Gardens team of  Michael Korie, lyricist and Scott Frankel, composer. Elmer Bernstein’s score enhanced the movie of Far From Heaven but doesn’t pierce the emotions with the strength of Frankel’s and Korie’s songs. The audience listened carefully to the lyrics because they are so revealing and insightful. For example, the song “Tuesdays and Thursdays” that Cathy sings recalling her car pool days but in subtext the good times she and Frank enjoyed before Cathy learned his secret. Many conversations take place musically, inside the songs.

Michael Greif directed with just the right touches of delicacy, tragedy and nostalgia. No surprise since he also directed Grey Gardens, Next to Normal and Rent.

Kelli O’Hara (South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza) is using her summer vacation from the Broadway show in which she currently stars, Nice Work If You Can Get It, to appear as Cathy in Far From Heaven. She is wonderful in this role, finally playing a character that shows the depth of her dramatic ability both in dialogue and song. The lyric, melodic songs allow her strong, nearly operatic soprano voice to soar. This is the vehicle that should finally win a Tony for the four-time Tony nominee.

As Raymond Deagan, her gardener, longed-for love interest and friend, Brandon Victor Dixon has extraordinary presence. Before he speaks or sings, his demeanor alone communicates kindness, strength and trust. His singing voice is smooth and emotive.

Frank, Cathy’s husband, is played by Steven Pasquale. Perhaps by direction, he rarely makes eye contact with the audience. Frank is ashamed of being gay, but still we miss the opportunity to know his soul a bit better. Pasquale too has a fine voice and strongly portrayed his anguished character.

As Eleanor, Cathy’s untrustworthy friend, Nancy Anderson is a bit of an enigma. Eleanor stays on her friend’s side until Cathy reveals the truth about her friendship with Raymond. Immediately Eleanor joins in the gossip yet still begs Cathy to trust her. Anderson sings convincingly, but we wished for more personality, more edge from a woman who behaves duplicitously to a friend.

The supporting cast is strong.  Mary Stout is a hoot as the sublimely smarmy Mrs. Leacock, the head of the town gossip rag. With the warbling vibrato of the era, she elicited laughs even when she isn’t singing anything funny. As Mona, driver of the gossip against Cathy, Alison Fraser is excellent. Co-conspirators, often singing in glorious syncopation and harmony, are played to perfection by Kate Hamilton and Sarah Jane Everman.  One wishes the talented Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Sybil, Cathy’s maid, nanny and emotional support, had more to say and do other than household chores. Tony Yazbeck is perfect as the too-smooth Miami Latin Singer. Chris Hoch and Sara Jane Everman are wonderfully Tony-Martin-esque in their Miami song spoof. Even Cathy’s children, Alexa Niziak and Charlie Plummer, sing beautifully without being show-offy, as young actors can often be. Williamstown native, Talia Hamilton, made her stage debut as Raymond’s picked-on daughter.

A ten-person orchestra led by Lawrence Yurman play the difficult score beautifully especially in the many sections in which their music carries the drama of the show.

The portion of Far From Heaven that needs the most tweaking is Cathy’s final number, her version of “Rose’s Turn” (Gypsy) after Frank and Raymond are gone and she realizes she is alone in the world with her children. Whether it was the song or the performance, O’Hara too often screams the high notes, distracting from the poignancy of the moment.

The opening night audience was mesmerized. No coughing in the quiet sections. No talking. No rustling. Many audience members were smiling from the sheer joy of being present at the birth of such an emotionally and musically satisfying show. For those of you who think all the great musicals have already been written, think again.

3 thoughts on “Far From Heaven: A New Musical based on the 2002 film at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

  1. I agree, not all the great musicals have already been written, but this sure isn’t one of them. I’m really hoping they can fix this before its ’13 Playwright’s Horizons run, but where I was sitting opening night, the audience was not mesmerized. It was polite. The first comment I overheard after the house lights came up was “Well, the lighting is REALLY good!” It’s not at all horrible, but I was really looking forward to this, and was really disappointed. It follows the movie too slavishly, the music is too often derivative of other shows and it’s more interested in mood than emotion. Hope that all ripens with time.

    1. I totally agree. Having seen and admired Grey Gardens, this was a big disappointment.

  2. Operatic soap opera! The concerns of the piece are, by now, terribly clichéed – a closeted husband in a seemingly perfect marriage. Done. The character of the black gardener written patronizingly as the perfect human being! The score is rich, but over-wrought. But a terrific cast and talented writers in spite of the result.

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