Naveen Kumar | New York | News | Review | Theatre | Todd Haynes

'Far From Heaven' Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW

FarFromHeaven136rSc

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Todd Haynes critically-acclaimed and Oscar nominated film Far From Heaven has been adapted into a sometimes moving though mostly puzzling new musical that opened Off Broadway Sunday at Playwrights Horizons.

FarFromHeaven511rScThe musical, with music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie and book by Richard Greenberg, depends first on suspending disbelief that the buttoned-up folks of 1950’s Connecticut turn their preternaturally repressed feelings into song. In a time and place so characterized by tension between polished exteriors and locked-up inner life, it can be a hard pill to swallow.

Nonetheless Haynes’ film is rich with promising material for the stage. Cathy Whitaker and her husband Frank (played here by Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale) seem like the perfect Hartford couple. But Cathy’s decorous charm isn’t just that, her uncommonly generous character extends to everyone around her—making her particularly vulnerable to the affects of misfortune.

Cathy is dealt her first blow when Frank’s distant attitude towards her and their children turns out to be the result of his desire for other men. After she catches him staying late at the office with an anonymous paramour, he agrees to see a doctor about getting back on the straight and narrow.

In the meantime, Cathy finds herself developing a unique bond with her African-American gardener Raymond Deagan (Isaiah Johnson), whose calm dignity and open heart are in sync with her own. Of course there's more trouble on the way as others in town catch wind of their friendship.

FarFromHeaven166rScHaynes film infuses this quiet story with opulent splendor—deep colors, sweeping, picturesque shots and sumptuous interiors—contrasting operatic visuals with the constrained emotional lives of his characters. Though the film’s heightened style is innately theatrical, and Elmer Bernstein’s score plays a big role in creating that style, the dynamics of a stage musical are something quite different.

Frankel and Korie, the writing team behind Grey Gardens (which also had its start at Playwrights Horizons), turn much of the screenplay into sung conversation. Though some numbers reach a certain level of heightened feeling, many are simply used in place of dialogue. Given the characters' constant struggle to keep emotions below the surface, there are only rare moments when song seems an appropriate medium of expression.

FarFromHeaven086rScO’Hara’s honeyed voice and delicate charm are well suited to the role of Cathy, and she’s master of her element anchoring a period musical. As her husband wrestling with a forbidden identity, Pasquale lacks the congenial warmth and depth of feeling that suffused Dennis Quaid’s linchpin performance in Haynes’ film. Without a glimpse of Frank and Cathy’s former happiness, the dissolving of their marriage has little impact.

As directed by Michael Greif (also a collaborator on Grey Gardens) action moves fluidly through designer Allen Moyer’s angular, rotating set. Projections by Peter Nigrini and other supplemental design (mostly in the form of seasonal matter falling gracefully from above) hint toward the visual interest of the film. But the tools that make the story work on screen remain mostly out of reach. 

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)

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Comments

  1. Um, you're aware, as a theatre critic, right, that generally a musical requires the suspension of disbelief about characters turning their thoughts and feelings into song? Whether buttoned-up folks in CT, or Oklahoma farm-hands, or demon barbers of Fleet Street, or gamblers hoping that luck will be a lady, or staid New Englanders enjoying a real nice clam-bake? Whatever one thinks of "Far From Heaven" (the music is certainly gorgeous), holding a musical to a standard of when "song seems an appropriate medium of expression" seems to miss a central aspect of the genre.

    Posted by: Ethel Merman | Jun 6, 2013 12:24:33 PM


  2. Ethel Merman: You are stating the mind-dulling obvious. Don't be so pedestrian!

    Posted by: will | Jun 6, 2013 1:00:07 PM


  3. I love this movie... i only wish I could see the show. I hope it does well.

    Posted by: Jim | Jun 6, 2013 1:29:36 PM


  4. First sign of a reviewer having trouble: Complaining that the characters in a musical are singing. Complain that the style of music isn't fitting to the emotional context being presented, sure, but to complain that you have to "suspend disbelief" that a musical is going to have songs shows the reviewer doesn't understand the point.

    "Given the characters' constant struggle to keep emotions below the surface, there are only rare moments when song seems an appropriate medium of expression."

    Then what are you doing reviewing a musical? If you think that the direction and performance of these songs is not in accordance to the intention of the scene, that's one thing. But there's no reason why the whole thing can't be sung. By this token, the entire concept of opera is a sham.

    You wanted a play. You need to put that aside and respect that this is not a play. It's a musical.

    Posted by: Rrhain | Jun 6, 2013 1:44:13 PM


  5. I was always hoping someone would turn "Safe" into a musical. Now that would be a mindf-ck. I can just see the big ensemble number that would close it: audience sing-along with Kate Wolf's Give Yourself to Love.
    All of his films are great, but SAFE was the film he was born to make.

    Posted by: EchtKultig | Jun 6, 2013 7:48:20 PM


  6. Will -- I think you misunderstood: I was stating the obvious point the reviewer missed -- this is a musical; people sing in it.

    Posted by: Ethel Merman | Jun 7, 2013 1:10:41 PM


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