Now comes Far From Heaven, based on the 2002 movie of the same name directed by Todd Haynes. The show is currently playing to sold-out houses at Playwrights Horizons, although based on the mixed critical response, it seems unlikely that the show will have a commercial future. That's really a shame, because the show, in my opinion, is the best thing that Frankel and Korie have produced to date. I sat transfixed by the ravishing music, the layered characterizations, the crisp direction, and the immensely talented cast.
Scott Frankel's music seems to get richer and more complex with every show. He seems less concerned here with crafting a realistic 1950s idiom than with creating a psychological milieu in which to explore the character interactions. The opening number, "Autumn in Connecticut," sets a tone of ordinary family life, complete with hints of Aaron Copland in the accompaniment. The tone starts to shift when Frank, Cathy's husband, is arrested for "vagrancy," and the song that Frankel and Korie craft here deftly plays around with time signatures in a manner reminiscent of "Daddy's Girl" from Grey Gardens. Both characters are experiencing a sudden upheaval in their heretofore balanced lives, and the effect is similarly effective and unnerving.
Frankel and Korie have also created for Far From Heaven some very complex and effective musical sequences, with song coming in and out of scenes as befits the story. Although there's lots of musicalized dialogue, it never sounds like recitative. The pair also make wonderfully effective use of diegesis, for instance when Cathy and Frank are on vacation and are dancing together at a party. The band plays a song called "Wandering Eyes" while Frank begins to notice a rather attractive young man eyeing him from the sidelines. Simple, and perhaps obvious, but nonetheless effective.
Some of Frankel's music for Far From Heaven can sometimes seem a bit too self-consciously Sondheim, but then again, these days that's a charge that gets trotted out whenever a composer shows any kind of ambition. And Korie's lyrics are not entirely immune to cliché, as when one song asks "How do you fly on broken wings?" But the score and the accompanying words are for the most part skillful and at times transcendent.
Much of the interest in Far From Heaven comes from the cast of theatrical notables, particularly Kelli O'Hara, who is remarkably touching and downright luminous as Cathy, a woman who at first seems like your typical 1950s housewife, and the always remarkable Steven Pasquale, giving a marvelously rich performance as Cathy's sexually conflicted husband. Notable among the supporting cast is the stalwart Nancy Anderson as Cathy's best friend, making an eminently credible transition from supportive neighbor to close-minded suburbanite.
Many of the reviews I've seen of Far From Heaven focus on the supposedly slow pace of the show, but I didn't see it that way. The show's libretto, by Tony-Award-winning playwright Richard Greenberg, unfolds in a way that feels eminently natural, moving when it needs to, and lingering when it wants to. Admittedly, the second act did feel a bit more diffuse than the first, losing a bit of focus in setting up husband's denouement.
And Michael Greif's sensitive direction is never less than taut. Greif demonstrates a subtle touch with the character relationships, all the more remarkable considering that the source material is an homage to 1950s cinematic melodrama. To create a sense of paranoia, Greif ensures that there's always someone watching key interactions, as when Cathy discovers her husband's struggle with his sexual identity, and finds what she clearly hopes will be solace in the person of her African American gardener, played here by Isaiah Johnson to smoldering effect. The scene in which the two hesitatingly dance with each other in a bar in the black part of town was almost unbearably tense, with darting eyes, suspicious glances, and an ever-present sense of impending conflict.I certainly hope that Far From Heaven has some kind of afterlife, at the very least a cast recording, which Happiness unfortunately did not receive. Perhaps Finding Neverland, Frankel and Korie's next show, will find these talented gentlemen the kind of critical and popular success they deserve. And since the show just signed on the redoubtable Diane Paulus as its new director, odds are certainly looking in their favor.