By: David Sheward
For a few decades now, the biggest musical theater trend is transferring hit movies to the stage. It usually works with uplifting comedies, quite often when drag is involved (La Cage Aux Folles, Hairspray, this season’s Tony Best Musical Kinky Boots). But serious film dramas getting the musical treatment don’t always work. Far From Heaven, the 2002 indie weepie directed and written by Todd Haynes, has been made over by composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, and book-writer Richard Greenberg. After a run at Williamstown Theatre Festival, the musical is now in an Off-Broadway run at Playwrights Horizons. The results are competent but fail to convey the shattering emotions of the original.
Caucasian housewife Cathy Whitaker finds herself dealing with sexual and racial repression in 1957 suburban Connecticut when her husband, Frank, reveals his long-hidden gay yearnings and she is attracted to Raymond, her African-American gardener. The film relied on Haynes’s highly stylized direction to convey the Technicolor idealization of Cathy’s supposed blissful domestic milieu and the turmoil underneath it. Greenberg has basically lifted Haynes’s screenplay and added a few names from the period (Joe McCarthy, NY Times film critic Bosley Crowther) to provide unneeded context. Likewise, Frankel’s music is too often on the nose, giving Frank jarring jazz and Raymond slow blues and soul as their leitmotifs. Korie’s lyrics are equally obvious. This is something of a surprise because Frankel and Korie did such a brilliant job of translating another film laden with subtext (Grey Gardens) to the stage. But the source material for that show, a documentary, allowed more leeway for adaptation of which the book-writer (Doug Wright) took full advantage.
Here we are given the surface of the story without the broiling inner conflicts. In the film, the final scene finds a tragically bereft Cathy about to divorce Frank and bidding Raymond goodbye at the Hartford train station as he must leave the city because of their suspected but never consummated interracial romance. Julianne Moore as the movie Cathy was able to impart her stunning loss with a simple gesture of touching Raymond’s arm. Kelli O’Hara the stage Cathy has been given a soupy climactic aria that ends with her smiling, determined to overcome her woes and embracing her children with love and optimism. It’s not the same impact.
Director Michael Grief delivers a slick production, aided by Allen Moyer’s flexible set and Peter Nigrini’s projections (kudos also to Catherine Zuber’s period costumes and Kenneth Posner’s picture-postcard lighting). But like the book and score, the staging fails to delve beneath the glossy exterior. The silver-voiced O’Hara doesn’t fully convey Cathy’s interior war. The only moments when she connects with the material on a deeper level are the brief moments when Cathy practices happy expressions in the mirror before answering her door. Then we see the split between the artificial Betty Crocker image and the suffering real woman. Raymond has been made into a saint of intelligence and compassion, and Isiah Johnson cannot breathe life into him. Steve Pasquale delivers Frank’s anguish, but that’s all. We don’t see the façade of the loving father and husband, which would have given his story arc tension.
There are hints of wit and fire in Nancy Anderson’s Eve Arden-ish best friend, Quincy Tyler Bernstine’s sympathetic maid, Alma Cuervo’s nasty gossip, and Mary Stout and J.B. Adams in multiple roles, but this uneven show is far from dramatic heaven.
June 2-July 7. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tue-Wed 7pm, Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 2:30pm & 7:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $70. (212) 729-4200 www.playwrightshorizons.org