Monday, June 24, 2013

Close Enough to Heaven, Despite a Few Flaws

Review:  Far From Heaven
Kelli O'Hara has found her greatest role yet as a conflicted Connecticut housewife in Far From Heaven.  Note to producers:  Transfer please!!!
Every few seasons, a show comes along that boldly attempts to push the boundaries of what the American musical can be.  Challenging preconceived notions about form and content, these works compensate for any flaws through sheer ambition and invention, eschewing the song-and-dance routines of traditional musicals in favor of something more high-minded and weighty.  Far From Heaven, the new Scott Frankel/Michael Korie tuner currently playing a sold-out engagement at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, is not a perfect show, but it is an endlessly fascinating examination of repressed feelings and forbidden love that is one final polish away from being a landmark musical event.

Based on the Oscar-nominated 2002 film of the same name, Far From Heaven tells the story of quintessential 1950s housewife Cathy Whitaker and the slow but inevitable collapse of her entire world.  The queen bee of Hartford, Connecticut, Cathy’s seemingly perfect life begins to unravel when she discovers that her husband has long struggled with a repressed attraction to other men.  At the same time, Cathy finds herself developing feelings for her kindly and unassuming black gardener in a time when such a relationship isn’t just uncommon but almost unthinkable.  Despite the seismic shifts occurring in her perfectly ordered world, Cathy struggles to keep up appearances and make sense of her ever-changing situation.

Like Frankel and Korie’s previous collaboration, the decades-spanning character study Grey Gardens, Far From Heaven is much more concerned with the subtle nuances of its characters’ emotions than with overblown shouting matches and volatile emotional breakdowns.  Initially this gives the evening a feeling of detached flatness, but as the show progresses and the layers are peeled away this separation morphs into an emotional realism that becomes the show’s greatest asset.  Despite being heavily musicalized and underscored, Heaven presents a wholly naturalistic world filled with characters as complex and conflicted as any real person, with a soul-stirringly beautiful score that far surpasses the pair’s already accomplished work on the aforementioned Gardens.  The songwriters’ use of character-specific themes and recurring motifs enriches the storytelling and provides subtle auditory clues about the characters’ emotional lives, and the music manages to be incredibly varied while simultaneously feeling entirely of one piece.  It is a dazzling display of musical mastery, sung to near-perfection by the supremely talented cast.

Anchoring the show with what is arguably the performance of her illustrious career, four-time Tony-nominee Kelli O’Hara is simply sublime as the vulnerable and slightly naïve Cathy.  O’Hara’s crystalline voice is so superb that you almost take it for granted, but in addition to her gorgeous tone the actress imbues ever note with a startling amount of emotional depth and intensity.  Her Cathy is definitely a product of her time, lacking the spine and inner resolve we’ve become accustomed to seeing in modern musical heroines, but rather than seeming weak this makes her all the more compelling.  She doesn’t have the strength to tell off her antagonists in a triumphant public spectacle, but like many real women she quietly soldiers on in the face of adversity while only allowing herself a few stolen moments to really come to terms with her grief.  Rather than being an idealized version of us, Cathy is us, with all the attendant foibles and momentary lapses in judgment, which simultaneously makes her more relatable and helps bridge the vast gap between her conservative mid-century reality and our own.

As her husband Frank, Steven Pasquale brings a rich baritone and deeply conflicted emotions to his role as a closeted homosexual.  The show is understanding of Frank without excusing him from his mistakes, including his continual lying about his whereabouts and the emotional abuse he occasionally hurls at Cathy.  The character could use a tad more development in the writing, but Pasquale makes the most of what he is given, and is a welcome presence whenever he’s onstage.  Pasquale makes you understand why Cathy would want to try and salvage such a deeply broken relationship, and as her gardener Raymond Deagan the entrancing Isaiah Johnson makes it just as easy to understand why she would be drawn to someone society deems unworthy of her love.  Johnson’s chemistry with O’Hara is palpable, and the pair beautifully charts the development of Cathy and Raymond’s relationship from that of friends to the deeper but largely unexpressed love that overtakes them.  There is a quiet sincerity about their interactions that is all-too-rare on the musical stage, and their final scene together is one of the show’s most heartbreaking.

The supporting cast is equally impressive, especially Nancy Anderson as Cathy’s best friend and confidante Eleanor Fine.  O’Hara and Anderson have a wonderfully believable friendship, and their voices sound particularly lovely when singing together.  Quincy Tyler Bernstine elevates her role as the Whitakers’ maid above that of archetype, displaying a fondness for Cathy and her children while maintaining a period-appropriate amount of emotional distance from them.  The only thing resembling a weak link in the cast is James Moye as Frank’s work buddy Stan, although the problem lies as much in the writing of the character as it does with Mr. Moye’s performance.

Director Michael Greif does a fine job with the show, although the admittedly challenging work does present the accomplished helmer with a few stumbling blocks.  Greif makes excellent use of the smallish Playwrights Horizons stage (aided immensely by Allen Moyer’s incredibly versatile and inventive set), but doesn’t quite nail the show’s delicate tone.  The acting is so subtle that it sometimes fails to read onstage, and yet Greif can be forgiven for not wanting to go too big with the characters’ emotions, as such a decision would destroy the nuance that makes the work so fascinating.  Greif has done an excellent job of providing the sideways glances and stern looks that help communicate just how scandalous Cathy and Raymond’s interracial friendship is to a modern audience, but much of that work is obscured by Kenneth Posner’s overly dark lighting design.  Thankfully the stage is still bright enough to see the period-perfect costumes by Catherine Zuber, whose work helps to fully transport the audience from 2013 New York to 1957 Connecticut.

Overall, any flaws in Far From Heaven (including bookwriter Richard Greenberg’s sometimes bland libretto) are vastly outweighed by its positives.  The show is one of the more complex relationship dramas to be musicalized, and the score by Frankel and Korie is positively enthralling.  The show has also gifted one of this generation’s greatest singing actresses with one of her greatest roles, and the show deserves a future life based on the strength of O’Hara’s performance alone.  Since no transfer has been announced and O’Hara’s impending pregnancy preclude the chances of the show being remounted anytime soon, any interested parties should definitely head over to Playwrights Horizons to catch this fascinating new musical before it ends its limited run July 7th.  It’s much closer to musical theatre heaven than most shows ever get.

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