Sunday, 12 May 2013

FAR FROM HEAVEN, the musical, at Playwrights Horizons

     FAR FROM HEAVEN, with a book by Richard Greenberg and lovely score by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), would be a better show if it were freer with its source material. The Todd Haynes film, a twenty-first century imitation of a 1950s Douglas Sirk tearjerker, told the story of a middle-class housewife in Hartford, Connecticut, who is forced outside the confines of conventional thought and action at a time when there were socially proscribed limits on one's behavior. Everyone thinks Kathy is the perfect wife for an up and coming businessman until, as her husband Frank can no longer repress his homosexuality, she becomes close friends and potentially more with her Black gardener, Raymond, a relationship that costs him much more than it costs her. At the end, Kathy is a divorcee (not easy for a housewife in 1957) and the subject of scandal. I'm not sure this moody film, which depended a great deal on closeups of Julianna Moore and the other actors, is surefure material for musical theatre. Opera, perhaps, and this version of FAR FROM HEAVEN verges on opera. It is almost through sung and filled with sweeping lyrical moments. While I liked FAR FROM HEAVEN, I couldn't help noticing its flaws.
     Richard Greenberg is usually an old-fashioned realist, writing elegant dramas about highly articulate upper middle class Americans, often Jewish. His most recent play THE ASSEMBLED PARTIES, now at the Friedman, is as much about the massive revolving setting of an elegant Manhattan apartment as it is about its characters. He actually wrote his best work, TAKE ME OUT, when he was willing to stray from his usual subject matter and his usual style. Greenberg has written a fairly literal adaptation of Haynes's film when a freer version would have been more interesting. He may have been hamstrung by the fact that this musical version of FAR FROM HEAVEN seems from the outset to have been conceived as a vehicle for Kelli O'Hara. She's wonderful (more on that later), but I think there was a missed opportunity to create a sharper comparison between what she and her husband experience as they move outside contemporary social mores. Kathy never actually goes to bed with Raymond, but she is seen publicly with him which is almost as dangerous. Frank risks everything when he finally experiences real love: his home, his family and probably his job. In 1957 he has made a daring, difficult choice for which he will pay a high price, as Raymond has paid a high price for his relationship with Kathy. Unfortunately, Frank in this version is neither well drawn nor sympathetic. In the film, we felt for Dennis Quaid's Frank. I don't understand why the gay creators of this musical have so little interest in him as a character. I also think there were opportunities to bring him more into the picture. There's a moment toward the end of Act I when Kathy and Raymond sing a duet, "The Only One", about their outsider status. Both my partner and I felt that it should have been a trio with Frank. That choice would have involved moving away from the conventional, realistic narrative approach Greenberg, Frankel and Korie had chosen, but why stick to that conventional approach? Musical theater allows a different kind of freedom than film does. Musicals can easily be two places at once, or in the minds of the characters. Greenberg stuck too closely to the film, giving us too many secondary female characters and not developing the men sufficiently. Don't Raymond and Kathy know what they're getting into? Are they so ignorant of the norms of their respective communities? Shouldn't the musical mention the gender politics here -- what attracts Kathy to Raymond is that he can conceive of a woman as his friend. The other husbands cannot. The show ends much too abruptly. Where is Kathy mentally at the end? What is she thinking? The film gave us a telling close-up on Julianna Moore. The show needed another song. I was surprised to see that Michael Greif and his actors seem scared of the gay stuff, which is presented much more cautiously in the musical than it was in the film. Again, without close-ups, we need a song, particularly in the Miami hotel room when Frank encounters the young man he will fall in love with. The musical presents this in upstage darkness as if something awful is about to happen. In the film it was brightly lit and very erotic -- we felt Frank's attraction. Cut the society reporter and give Frank more to do -- or simply make the relatively short show a bit longer and develop Frank.
     I liked the lush score. The orchestra is a crucial player here as it is in 1950s melodramas and Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations make the twelve piece orchestra sound like a Hollywood studio orchestra. Much of the musical language is of the period, particularly of film dramas of the period -- lush melodies, some harsh jazz for more tense moments. Michael Korie's rhymes are sometimes predictable and sometimes too solemn. The film is aware of its ironies: the musical doesn't have an ironic bone in its body and what is a musical without irony? Kathy gets most of the music when, as I have said, Frank needs more.
     I saw the fourth preview and the production is in surprisingly good shape. The moving black skeletal sets (Allen Moyer) are enlivened by the bright period costumes for the women (Catherine Zuber). Kathy goes through more costume changes than Auntie Mame does. Michael Greif's staging is, wrongheaded at moments (see above) but generally effective, if not inspired, Kelli O'Hara is a performer I have not previously loved. She was a good ingenue in THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA and a good, but not great Nellie Forbush in the Lincoln Center revival of SOUTH PACIFIC. I thought she was blah in NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT and in the recent telecast of the New York Philharmonic CAROUSEL, Jessie Mueller's Carrie stole the show but, in all fairness, Carrie usually steals the show. Julie Jordan is a bit of a sap. Finally in FAR FROM HEAVEN I understood her star status. She's an excellent singer who, like Audra McDonald can use her legit voice in very expressive ways. She's better in drama than in comedy, which is odd for a musical theater star. Stephen Pasquale is a fine singer and actor who hasn't been given enough to do. Isaiah Johnson sings well and does all he can with the role of Raymond, who is too good -- and naive -- to be true.
     I hope the creators do the work necessary to give the show a future. It needs to be more daring with its source material. We don't need a faithful replica of the screenplay with songs. We need a new take on the material that takes advantage of the possibilities of musical theater. I doubt Richard Greenberg is the person do that.  However, the score and the performances make it worth seeing, even in its current state.
FAR FROM HEAVEN. Playwrights Horizons. May 11, 2013.

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