Monday, June 3, 2013

REVIEW: Far from Heaven


Review of the Saturday, May 18 evening preview performance at Playwrights Horizons Off-Broadway in New York City.  Starring Kelli O'Hara, Steven Pasquale, Isaiah Johnson, Nancy Anderson, Mary Stout, Alma Cuervo, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, James Moye.  A new musical with book by Richard Greenberg.  Music by Scott Frankel.  Lyrics by Michael Korie. Directed by Michael Greif.  2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.  Through July 7.

Grade: B

Even if the new musical Far from Heaven never sees the light of another stage after this engagement at Playwrights Horizons, there is so much to praise about this sometimes over earnest and slightly awkwardly staged musical adaptation of the film by the same name.  And even if the creative team never changes a note of music or syllable of a lyric, this always gorgeous, frequently beguiling, evocative score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie needs to be preserved in a well-produced cast recording.  But I am going to assume that some more work will be done on the piece, and that this engagement is but one step on a much longer journey.

The Set by Allen Moyer
As enchanting and intriguing as the show consistently is, some improvement could (and should and probably will) be made in a few areas.  First, most, if not all, of Allen Moyer's set design should be scrapped.  Realizing that maybe it is designed for a future larger stage, the cagey, very linear metal boxes that represent everything from a palatial Connecticut manse, to a train car, to a jail cell, crowd the stage in frequently distracting ways.  I get the visual representation of lives that are rigidly linear.  And perhaps just one of those set pieces would do the trick, used to highlight the extremities of the situations, and in combination with Peter Nigrini's Technicolor projections - sweeping panoramas and artistically tight photos of specific locations - fragmented with areas left blank on a screen that takes up the whole back wall.  Those broken images - the talk of the chat rooms - offer a stage version of the visual provided in the film.  As it stands, though, there is often too much of those cagey boxes in the way.

The Projections by Peter Nigrini
Further, the abundance of set pieces and a large cast gets in the way of the smooth, cinematic transitions that director Michael Greif is obviously going for.  When they do happen, it looks beautiful and is easy on the eyes, allowing one to submerge oneself into this world long gone, but with many vital lessons for today.  But several times, there is a lethal combination of awkward stage crosses by cast, trying to move scenery, while the orchestra vamps.  And vamps.  And vamps.  I can not believe that the same man who so deftly, smoothly, and "fat-free-ly" created next to normal is responsible for this frequently awkward staging mess.  Of course, I saw this early in previews, and maybe some of the kinks were ironed out.  It is a shame that those things so frequently interrupt some otherwise glorious moments of staging.
The darker side of a husband's "secret"...
...the "secret" just as dark in broad daylight.

It is interesting to me that those better moments run the full gamut from a single actor on an expansively lit stage to a moodily lit group scene where the drinks flow, the cigarettes create a sexy haze, and the business suited men stand guard over their obedient tea dressed wives, to an interesting tableau on a Florida beach, brightly lit in contrast to the darker sexual energies at play in the scene.  Yes, Greif is about half way there in making Heaven heavenly to watch. The common denominator in those scenes, and throughout all of the show really, is the brilliant contribution of lighting designer Kenneth Posner.  Instead of trying to replicate the splashy color and style of the film, he recognizes that the stage can't do what film does (and vice versa), and so, instead, uses pools of color and equally important areas of darkness to convey mood, theme and space, while helping the audience to focus its attentions where they need be.  Fortunately, light can help us "see through" the set pieces.

The colorful, "perfect" world of 1950's suburban American life is brought to life in the most stunning way by costume designer Catherine Zuber, who has designed a rich, evocative collection that would look great on a sit-com, dramatic melodrama or fashion runway of the era.  I suspect that the leading lady of the show has at least fifteen, maybe twenty outfits from hat to gloves to perfectly matching shoes and overcoats.  They are visually stunning all by themselves, and all the more remarkable because they successfully hide a five months' pregnant Kelli O'Hara.  That bit of trivia aside, these costumes - for the other male and female characters as well - never let you forget the rigid societal rules, or the unhappiness under the perfection.  These A-line dresses and pinstripe suits might just as well be straight jackets for the characters who are discovering that life exists outside the rules; the same costumes on other characters remind us constantly that others prefer the comfort of rigidity and moral righteousness.

The Costumes of Catherine Zuber
The book by Richard Greenberg needs a bit of work, too.  Often times, it feels like the spoken book scenes only slow down what is already being said in frequent sections of recitatives (5 "Table Talk" and 2 "Office Talk," appropriately enough).  That is not to say that this should be a through-composed piece.  Often, the lack of music actually highlights key moments in the story.  Perhaps, Greenberg's scenes would be better spent developing the two elements of the story that represent a breaking of the rules - a husband's hidden homosexuality and the forbidden relationship developing between a white housewife and a black gardener.  The time he does spend on these plot points is wasted on too much stereotyping and not enough meaty development.  I'd even suspect that audience members sitting in certain parts of the house might have missed altogether the advent of the gay relationship that ultimately splits the central couple apart.  I get that we never hear a word from the lover, and even agree with it, but two quick "scenelets" showing us how the husband is coping with it all - a trip to a doctor offering aversion therapy, and an awkward romantic attempt by both husband and wife - go by too fast to register, or worse yet, leave behind an after taste of triviality.  All of that said, just as with the direction, there are moments of brilliance in the book scenes that hint at what this show will hopefully become.

The least amount of work needs to be done on the score.  As it stands, it is a stunning, often poetic work of art, with each character given his/her own specific motif and character-driven riffs on those motifs.  Not since Sondheim's Passion has the music and lyrics been so tightly hewn to the characters and story.  You have to appreciate the complexity of the husband's harsher 50's jazz riffs and how they both complement and are at odds with the sweeping beauty of the near-operatic themes assigned to the wife.  As the majority of the show focuses on her, there are often long sections of medium to slow tempo arias.  I think the one area that the score could improve upon would be to offer up an up-tempo, catchy tune or two in each act to offer a break from the overall calm of the score; these numbers could even be placed so as to highlight darker, quieter moments which would follow.  Much has been discussed in chat rooms and other media that compares this score to Frankel and Korie's previous effort, Grey Gardens.  Frankly, this score shows a maturing in their partnership, and proof that they write for specific projects, not a "sound."  The two works have little in common, and I have to question why there is an insistence on comparing the two beyond the shared authorship.

(Left) Mary Stout and Kelli O'Hara
(Right) Kelli O'Hara and Nancy Anderson

Just as there were cast changes between the premiere at Williamstown and this engagement, I have to wonder if there will be some changes made between now and its next incarnation.  Both of the central children need to be recast, as they both mark a serious step backward in the quest for stage kids to be real and not so cloying and smarmy.  The African-American child, on the other hand, is the epitome of grace and style.  Character actor J.B. Adams needs to go as well, as his portrayals of the "artist" and "the doctor" offer little beyond eye-rolling stereotypes that a better actor could overcome easily. The usually wonderful Alma Cuervo overplays her hand as the devious society matron so much so that you expect her to twirl her moustache in wicked glee as she outs our leading lady as a "negro lover" and her husband as a "homosexual" (insert sneering tone here).

On the other hand, there are several supporting characters that need to stay and, hopefully, have more to work with in later versions.  Even Justin Scott Brown, as the silent lover, makes an impression, as does the co-worker of the husband, James Moye.  The supporting character that I cared most about, the maid Sybil, is wonderfully played - and often with just observational facial expressions - by Quincy Tyler Bernstine.  Please give her more to do!  And Mary Stout offers most of the show's laughs as the ultra snobby gossip/society reporter.  Again, more for her, please.  Finally, the supporting role that needs absolutely no work - keep the part and the actress - is the best friend and confidante, played with a refreshingly wry take by the Tony-worthy Nancy Anderson.
(Left) Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale
(Right) Kelli O'Hara and Isaiah Johnson

The central love triangle would be all the better with a little more substance in the script and score in terms of the relationships.  All three leads do everything they can with what they are given; both men would be best served by more depth to work with, slowing down the events in their lives enough to get everyone more invested in what is at risk.  That said, Steven Pasquale plays the anger, terror and self-loathing of a gay man in the closet as he's realizing that the "gay isn't going away" perfectly.  And he gets some of the most interesting jazz numbers to sing.  Isaiah Johnson offers the near-perfect opposite to Pasquale, and not just racially.  Johnson is soft and gentle with an undercurrent of strength, and his songs are smart and thoughtful, smooth and easy on the ears.  He is wonderful, especially with his leading lady, though his role (not the actor) could benefit from more recognition of the very real dangers a relationship of any kind with this woman would actually bring.  As it is, those dangers are touched upon, but there is never any real sense of consequences beyond some nasty gossip.  No matter, Johnson's gentleness easily explains the lady's attraction to him.

Kelli O'Hara in Far from Heaven

That lady is played with lush, heartfelt beauty by Broadway treasure, Kelli O'Hara, who is utter perfection here.  Her voice has never been better, so sweet, smooth and with such a glorious belt.  Her acting is superb,  in what could easily be a one-note characterization in the hands of a lesser actress.  Can any one of her contemporaries interpret a song with such specificity?  She can break your heart with the lilt of just one word or phrase.  I had the opportunity to observe her from very close, and she is one hell of an actress.  She uses a facial expression, the cock of an eyebrow, a thoughtful pause in her step, even the different ways she picks up the phone to convey the complexities of a woman caught between the comfort of the rigid rules of housewivery and the surprises and dangers of accepting life outside societal boundaries.  Her performance is a study in subtlety, nuance and attention to detail.  At then end of the show, she sings a gorgeous number, "Tuesday, Thursdays" sure to become an audition staple.  But I doubt anyone will ever match O'Hara's interpretation.  The Tony Award that has so far eluded her could very well be hers with this amazing stage turn by an amazing actress.

Though it is not quite ready, and could use some overhauling and tweaking, Far from Heaven isn't heavenly yet, but it isn't too far from Heaven for musical theatre fans, either.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)


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