Adapting a movie for the stage is always a tricky prospect, but rarely more so than in the case of Far From Heaven, the musical adaptation of which is now playing off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. The 2002 movie, directed by Todd Haynes, is revered by film buffs (especially gay ones) who found much to admire in Julianne Moore’s portrayal of a staid New England housewife in the 1950s whose marriage to her closeted gay husband is cooling off as her relationship with her African-American gardener begins to heat up. Haynes’s movie, which he both wrote and directed, uses Douglas Sirk’s mid-century melodramas as a jumping off point for a story that finds equal drama in what’s left unsaid as in its characters’ dialogue.
It’s challenging enough in a musical adaptation to capture the essence of a source material’s spoken lines, but capturing its subtext is an entirely different matter — particularly considering that, in film, many tools of the medium, including close-ups and montages, are at a filmmaker’s disposal. That this new musical adaptation is as successful as it is is a testament to its creators, the songwriting team of Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics), who adapted Grey Gardens for the stage several years ago, along with book writer Richard Greenberg and director Michael Greif.
The musical Far From Heaven, which is largely sung-through, focuses more on its characters’ outsized, operatic emotions than it does on their moments of introspection (with a few notable exceptions). Our protagonist, Cathy Whitaker (the luminous Kelli O’Hara) isn’t one to wear her emotions on her sleeve. When she and her girlfriends get together for daiquiris and bedroom gossip, she’s the party pooper dodging all their naughty questions about her strapping husband Frank (Steven Pasquale). One night, after Frank explains he’ll be home late from the office, Cathy heads down to the office with a hot meal and finds her husband kissing another man. As Frank deals with the fallout (he begins seeing a psychiatrist of his own volition) and Cathy struggles to know whom she can talk to about their problems, she begins to take solace in her gardener, a strapping, sensitive African-American man named Raymond. Given the time period, intermingling between the races is a no-no, and both Cathy and Raymond both end up experiencing the consequences of their actions.
When Frankel and Korie’s score takes off, it really soars. Despite a few too many refrains of the same mind-numbingly jaunty music for Cathy’s children, much of the music here is truly lovely, especially the songs for Cathy and Raymond. When the two run into each other at a local art show toward the end of the first act and find themselves in front of a painting by Jean Miro, their different takes on the same work of art present a chance to explore their different world views in a song called “Miro.” Later, as Cathy begins to examine her feelings for Raymond, she asks him, in one of Korie’s best (and deceptively simple) lyrics “What does it feel like being the only one?” Cathy, to some degree out of naiveté, imagines that Raymond finds himself more often than not the only black man in rooms full of whites. While this is true of his character to a certain extent, the authors cleverly have Raymond reverse the scenario when he cannily invites Cathy to an all-black bar for a drink and sings the same line back to her.
Given the beauty of the music for Cathy and Raymond’s characters, it’s a let-down that Frank’s songs (which have a jazzier feel) are so abrasive as to be off-putting. The character of Frank as a whole is unsympathetic almost to the point of villainy, throwing off the balance of the musical as a whole. The performances here are consistently engaging. Kelli O’Hara is absolutely luminous as Cathy, maintaining excellent chemistry with the rich-voiced Isaiah Johnson as Raymond. If the material Steven Pasquale’s given as Frank is somewhat subpar, he turns in a committed performance nonetheless, as do a number of the supporting cast members, including Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Nancy Anderson, Mary Stout, and Alma Cuervo, each of whom adds an admirable layer of detail to the proceedings.
The sets, by Allen Moyer, are generally effective. Moveable platforms and staircases commingle nicely with Peter Nigrini’s projections. The show’s lush costumes are by Catherine Zuber, with evocative lighting by Kenneth Posner. Director Michael Greif has done a mostly admirable job shepherding the production as a whole. Despite a few missteps, especially a cartoonishly-directed scene depicting a hate crime, Greif keeps the production’s momentum going and maintains a balanced focus between Cathy’s conflicting romances with Frank and Raymond. All in all, the show may yet be far from heaven, but it touches the clouds.