BY DAVID KENNERLEY | In the 2002 movie “Far From Heaven,” writer-director Todd Haynes relied on the sumptuous, supercharged visual style of Douglas Sirk to heighten the emotional power of a marriage in crisis in a leafy suburb in Eisenhower-era Connecticut.
In adapting the groundbreaking art-house film (which starred Julianne Moore and Dennis Quaid as the embattled couple) to the stage, the creators chose to transform the work into a musical, where a lush score would express the emotions in place of a lyrical cinematic style.
Naturally, given the dour subject matter, “Far From Heaven” is far from your typical Broadway musical. Much of it is sung through, at times verging on operatic.
And who better to articulate this off-kilter, angst-ridden drama than the Tony-nominated team from “Grey Gardens” — director Michael Greif, composer Scott Frankel, lyricist Michael Korie, and scenic designer Allen Moyer.
The book, by Richard Greenberg (“Take Me Out”), is remarkably faithful to the source material. Cathy Whitaker’s picture-perfect life in socially regimented Hartford circa 1957 begins to crumble when her “dreamboat” husband, Frank, is arrested for loitering in a homosexual pickup area, causing the couple to miss an important cocktail party.
They initially dismiss the incident as an “inadvertent mix-up” until more evidence mounts that Frank is indeed hopelessly attracted to men. As her closeted husband grows more distant, Cathy clings to normalcy by taking care of her children with help from her devoted black maid, Sybil (Quincy Tyler Bernstine). She also strikes up a scandalous friendship with Raymond, her strapping gardener who, in keeping with the era, is also black.
While the story is beautifully realized, much of the meandering drama is so subtle that it threatens to fizzle. Such a delicate piece needs a strong heart, and it finds one in the magnificent Kelli O’Hara, who brings a glorious, pulsating life force to the proceedings.
Despite expert performances across the board, this production belongs to O’Hara, who also shined in “South Pacific,” “The Light in the Piazza,” and, earlier this season, “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” As Cathy, the lovely O’Hara (who happens to be six months pregnant) heartbreakingly conveys the inner turmoil of a suspicious housewife seeking solace in a forbidden kindred spirit as her world comes crashing down.
Steven Pasquale (“Reasons To Be Pretty” and TV’s “Rescue Me”) is well cast as the tortured, increasingly alcoholic breadwinner with a shocking secret. His Frank is a churning mass of contradictions — he loves his wife and kids, works hard at his high-stress advertising job, wants to fit the mold of dutiful husband, and even goes to a psychiatrist to be “cured,” yet he continues to lust after men. He earns our sympathy even though he’s responsible for destroying their marriage.
Other standouts include Isaiah Johnson as Raymond, Cathy’s illicit, reluctant confidante, Nancy Anderson as Cathy’s hypocritical best friend, and Mary Stout as a nosy society columnist.
Moyer’s set employs a handsome, modular metal framework that reconfigures to evoke a range of locales including the expansive Whitaker home, Frank’s office, and an art gallery. A backdrop of fractured video images shows trees ablaze with autumn foliage, later becoming barren in winter and blossoming in early spring — echoing the dramatic arc perhaps a little too tidily.
In lesser hands, “Far From Heaven” might come off as campy, pulpy melodrama. Under Grief’s care, the piece is a sharply observed study of midcentury norms where, much to Cathy’s dismay, there’s “no way out” of dreadful social obligations. Homosexuality is a disease to be cured — sometimes with electroshock therapy — and “negroes” must be kept in their place. Conformity, repression, and prejudice abound.
You’ll find no razzle-dazzle numbers here. In the vein of eccentric, character-driven musicals like “Grey Gardens” and “Next to Normal” (which, not surprisingly, Greif also directed) the plaintive, jazz-inflected score illuminates dark corners of the characters’ souls.
One of the most affecting is “Miro,” a haunting, tension-filled ballad that finds Cathy and Raymond responding deeply to a Miro painting in an art exhibition as horrified friends look on.
“I see a lost and found of dreams,” sings Cathy. “The innocence we had as children, shoals of goldfish… shimmering in streams.”
In “If It Hadn’t Been,” an agitated Frank, after being “manhandled” by the cop who found him loitering, carps about being searched “spread-eagle” on a Chevy Bel-Air by a “prick.” Ingeniously, the song conveys a sublimated homoerotic fantasy disguised as a protest.
Considering the tremendous talent onstage and off, one would expect that “Far From Heaven” was designed for a transfer to Broadway, as “Grey Gardens” scored out of Playwrights Horizons a decade ago. And yet the emotions are so richly complex, the drama so muted, the climax so unsatisfying, I’m not sure this unconventional musical would appeal to mainstream audiences, who generally prefer their shows to wear flashy sequins and kinky boots.
FAR FROM HEAVEN | Playwrights Horizons, Mainstage Theater | 416 W. 42nd St. | Through July 7: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Fri. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun. at 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. $85 at ticketcentral.com
©2013 Community News Group