Jennifer Ellis in "Far from Heaven"
(photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)
“What does it feel like being the only one?” That’s the central question at the core of SpeakEasy Stage Company’s initial production of the current season, the musical “Far From Heaven”. Based on the 2002 film of the same name written and directed by Todd Haynes, it’s in turn inspired by the Douglas Sirk film melodramas of the 50’s (such as “Imitation of Life” and “All That Heaven Allows”). The musical boasts a book by Richard Greenberg (very closely following Haynes’ Oscar-nominated original screenplay, at least in the first act), with a score by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, the Tony-nominated duo from the musical version of “Grey Gardens”. It premiered at the Williamstown Festival and had a limited run at New York’s Playwright’s Horizon last season. Easily the most anticipated show of this season, this production provides a welcome opportunity to enjoy one of the finest musical scores in recent memory, with a creative team that evokes on stage the lushness and beauty of the original film. It’s a must-see for any musical theater buff, a joy for both the eye and ear.
The book, however, is far from the celestial heights of the score, with several non-credible coincidences and some underwritten roles. (This can be problematic in a work that lives so much below the surface). The time is 1957; the place, Hartford, Connecticut (though it seems to be more of a suburb). Cathy Whitaker (Jennifer Ellis) and her husband Frank (Jared Troilo), a company executive, are in a picture-perfect marriage in a picture-perfect community, seemingly content with their superficial conventional lives. After an effective tableau featuring some of the relationships within the sizeable cast of characters, Cathy first rhapsodizes about her favorite season, Autumn, with “the picture postcard right out our door.” She’s idolized by her son David (Josh Sussman) and daughter Janice (Audree Hedequist), and her closest friend Eleanor Fine (Aimee Doherty), whose husband Stan (Terrence O’Malley) is an executive who works with Frank. The first glimmer of unrest arises with Frank’s arrest for a misdemeanor. Meanwhile, Cathy is praised in an interview by Mrs. Leacock (Kerry A. Dowling) from the local society paper: “a standard other wives can strive for”. They are interrupted when Cathy confronts an unfamiliar black man in her garden, who turns out to be Raymond Deagen (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), the son of her late gardener. The reporter records it as Cathy’s being “kind to Negroes”, which amuses Cathy’s friends when they come by for cocktails to gossip about their sex lives. Disturbed by their sexual revelations, she walks into her garden, where Raymond returns, having found her lost scarf. An awkward discussion follows, with Raymond advising her “you need to know what grows in your growing zone.” (It’s a pivotal moment expressed in song, comparing “Sun and Shade” in a somewhat unsubtle metaphor). When Frank calls to tell her he’s working late again, she asks her maid Sybil (Carolyn Saxon) to prepare a plate of food Cathy can take to him at his office as a surprise, thus accidentally discovering Frank’s secrets. Later, she’s seen talking with Raymond and his teenage daughter Sarah (Sophia Mack) at an art exhibition opening, as they agree that “Miró invites you to believe the world is filled with miracles.” Still later, Cathy and Frank have an altercation in which he accidentally injures her. Raymond finds her weeping in the garden and invites her to accompany him, first on a delivery errand, then to a restaurant patronized by blacks, after she naively asks him what it’s like being the “only one...looking for kindred spirits, and finding none”.
This rendezvous also does not go unobserved. Gossip prevails in their small-minded community, forcing Cathy to act against her own wishes. Even Eleanor begins to suspect her as she warns that “people make their choices in life, for good or for bad.” On vacation in Miami, Cathy is blissfully unaware of Frank’s wandering eyes, until upon returning home he confesses to her, “I never had a clue; I never knew how much I never knew”, and they plan the rest of their lives, recalling all the everyday minutiae of “Christmas, summers, painters, plumbers.” Cathy goes to speak with Raymond, and he tells her he’s learned his lesson about mixing their two worlds, urging her to have a picture in her mind, to “see the world as it should be.” She returns home sadder but wiser, after finding a Spring-themed “picture postcard…though now it’s not as close to heaven as it used to seem…that was just a dream.”
As music drama, this work’s complex score is, as noted above, as close to heaven as it gets. It’s unabashedly romantic, even operatic. One is reluctant to describe the score as such, as this can be the kiss of death for the popularity of a musical, but the orchestrations, monologues and repeated motifs and reprises (such as the several “Table Talks”, “Office Talk” and “Phone Talk”) do tend to support such a designation. So does the frequent use of recitative and the fact that it is virtually through-composed, often with jazz overtones and lush and lavish underscoring of singspiel-like passages. (In fact, it cries out for operatically trained voices). It’s an evocative score, fully in sync with the film version’s music by Elmer Bernstein, which itself was an homage to the Warner Brothers movies of the 50’s. The standout numbers, such as “The Only One”, “A Picture in Your Mind”, and the aforementioned “Tuesdays, Thursdays”, rival those of “Grey Gardens”, which is no small praise. The score does suffer with the present trimmed-down orchestration, but the choice of Scott Edmiston as Director (also Professor of the Practice and Chair of the Theatre Department at Northeastern University) was an inspired one, given his background with operas and music dramas, such as Speakeasy’s “Light in the Piazza” (which this score resembles). He has commented elsewhere on the core of the work and “the smart, stylish surface of 1950’s America (that) masks lives of longing and love that cannot be realized.” The various plots might seem almost quaint to a modern audience in their parochialism but are stifling nonetheless. The Musical Direction is by Steven Bergman, with excellent movement and Choreography by David Connolly. The Set Design by Eric Levenson is brilliantly effective, along with Karen Perlow’s Lighting Design (free and colorful one moment, with prison-like bars the next) in capturing the look and spirit of those old movie melodamas. The Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker is just about perfect in evoking the era, as gorgeous and colorful as the golden age of films. They help create harmony, orally, visually and creatively. Adding to the performance were the remaining cast members, most in several roles, include Will McGarrahan, Tyler Lenhart, Carla Martinez, Jennifer Mischley, Ellen Peterson, Rachel Gianna Tassio, Darren Bunch, and Michael Levesque.
While some of the cast had occasional struggles with the high register of some of the score, this will probably be overcome with more familiarity and comfort with its extraordinarily challenging demands. The problem with some of the dialogue (“chop chop”, “tally ho”) and character development is more of an issue. Ellis manages to convince even as a hopelessly naïve housewife, but Troilo has no chance to garner any sympathy as we’re barely introduced to his character before he’s abruptly drowning in angst and deception. Parent conveys the decency and humanity of his role without straying to the overly saccharine. Hedequist and Mack are very natural actresses, and Sussman succeeds in providing what little comedy the plot contains (though he needs to avoid peeking at the audience). Saxon portrays her wise and calming servile role with dignity. Dowling as the fawning reporter and Will McGarrahan as a chill-inducing therapist show once again how versatile and valuable these local stalwarts are. But it is Doherty (whom we’ve seen in the past in serious and comic roles, singing, dancing, and even playing musical spoons), as the supremely hypocritical “friend”, a Jewish matron, who has the juiciest role, speaking volumes with a simple sigh.
With such a marvelous amalgam of smart performances and stylish production, there’s no reason in hell to miss “Far from Heaven”.