When the word was out that there would be a musical made of the 2002 film, Far from Heaven, by the team that created Gray Gardens and starring Kelli O’Hara as Cathy, I was intrigued and excited. There is something lyrical in that film and the highly emotional issues facing the characters of the story are ripe for strong musical moments. The whole project makes sense, however, what I forgot is how uneasy the film left me feeling––how unsettled and unresolved. The same goes for the musical now running at Playwrights Horizons.
Richard Greenberg has written the book from the Todd Haynes screenplay, Michael Korie has written the lyrics and Scott Frankel has composed beautiful music. There is an uneven feeling in this collaboration, for chunks of the show are sung through and then the show switches to spoken book scenes. When and where the authors feel a character should sing rather than talk seems to have no rhyme or reason––the way in which this story is told in words and music is inconsistent. Also, there are no stand out numbers. Songs tend to die out and the show moves on, leaving a question hanging as to whether or not the audience should have applauded and mostly we don’t––but at odd times we do. Over all, aside from the unnecessary chatty recitative that sometimes happens––especially with the two kids––the score is very pretty. Especially nice is the opening, “Autumn in Connecticut,” which makes one feel that a treat is in store and it almost is.
Kelli O’Hara enters to warm applause, justified by her winning performances of past years, and sings the score in her crystal clear soprano and with her usual passion. Although she has many solo moments, including the fine “Tuesdays, Thursdays,” most of her songs are shared. Quite a few are shared with Isaiah Johnson as Raymond Deagan, the black gardner who she dares to fall in love with while struggling through a marriage to her gay husband, Frank. Frank is played with brooding angst by Steven Pasquale, who sings his few impassioned songs with a stellar voice. These three leads make the show quite a Big Sing worth the price of admission, even as the story is downbeat and wallows in hopelessness.
The story is set in the 1950s and the trials of a gay man trying to cope with his “problem” and his wife trying to hold the family together attempts to depict the situation realistically. This musical telling of the serious story of the film has been true to its source, however, this is a musical and therefore a new take might have been employed to leave us feeling better about the journey by the final curtain. Ms. O’Hara’s simple smile at the very end of the show suggests that she will move on to better times, but that isn’t really enough to relieve us from the burden of the dark ‘50s. After all, Cathy now has a broken family, she must give up her relationship with Raymond just as it was beginning and although Frank has found a boyfriend, his world is depicted as shadowy and we never see the couple in harmony. At least Frank hasn’t committed suicide, which he would have had the piece been written in the ‘50s instead of about the ‘50s.
Michael Greif has directed the play to expose its greatest emotional extremes. His economical staging makes good use of Allan Moyer’s sparse set of three moving units, aided by Peter Nigrini’s helpful projections. Catherine Zuber has dressed the cast in high ‘50s fashion, reminding us beyond a doubt as to what era we are dealing with. Bruce Coughlin’s orchestrations make the band of 12 musicians sound like double the players.
This is a chamber musical filled with many beautiful things, but it is about sadness, social cruelty, injustice, prejudice and the ways people are helpless victims of their times––times we have largely left behind, but recent enough that it hurts to revisit them.