‘Far from Heaven’: Cast overcomes so-so score

Jennifer Ellis and Maurice Emmanuel Parent visit an art gallery in a scene from “Far From Heaven.” Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Jennifer Ellis and Maurice Emmanuel Parent visit an art gallery in a scene from “Far From Heaven.” Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

BOSTON — The Speakeasy Stage Company production of the new musical “Far From Heaven” succeeds on so many levels that it almost sounds ludicrous to say the one area it falls short in is as a musical.
But such is the case with the show, which began life in 2012 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and is based on Todd Haynes’ screenplay of his 2002 film starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert.
The story’s well-told, the production values are superb, and the acting almost equally so, so you won’t feel as if you’ve misspent your money even if you find — as I did — the score isn’t particularly compelling.
The book by Richard Greenberg (“Take Me Out”) is purposeful, but the score by Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Robuie (lyrics), who collaborated on the lovely “Grey Gardens,” too often fades into the background.
Too many of the songs sound as if the composer and lyricist just decided to take some of the dialogue from the Greenberg book and set it to music. And with the certain sameness, many of the individual numbers struggle to break out and stand on their own.
Yet, some do. “Autumn in Connecticut” (video available at  http://youtu.be/uVo4OJgSRgY) is a lovely opening number, “The Only One” is a recurring theme used effectively in several situations, and the regret shines through in the second act’s “I Never Knew.” 

It is 1957 Hartford, Conn., and the lives of wives in upscale neighborhoods are centered around social lives, planning menus that someone else will cook, working with children who should be seen and not heard and fathers who frequently aren’t home for dinner.
At the center of it all is housewife Cathy Whitaker, played by Jennifer Ellis, who has had quite a year indeed, breaking your heart in Stoneham’s “The Secret Garden,” and earning standing ovations in “Jacques Brel” at the Gloucester Stage Company.
This time she is superb as an outwardly happy married housewife, the mother of two children, who finds her grip on happiness loosening by the day.
Aimee Doherty is right there with her as Cathy’s confidant whose home life is also not as placid, and she has a nice number in “Cathy, I’m Your Friend.”

From left, Aimee Doherty, Jennifer Mischley,  Jennifer Ellis and Rachel Gianna Tassio sing “Marital Bliss” from the new musical “Far From Heaven.” Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

From left, Aimee Doherty, Jennifer Mischley, Jennifer Ellis and Rachel Gianna Tassio sing “Marital Bliss” from the new musical “Far From Heaven.”
Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

It is all about keeping up appearances at all costs, and in Cathy‘s case, keeping the “Stepford Wives” smile plastered on her face as her life falls apart.
Jared Troilo is her husband, Frank, whose arrest for loitering early on will gradually give way to late nights at the office and, finally, a painful encounter and a confession. He will also feel he is “The Only One” in poignant and powerful scenes in which he is treated for his “mental illness,” a la Beau Bridges in the Showtime TV series “Masters of Sex.”
Maurice Emmanuel Parent has demonstrated his acting range from “The Mother***** in the Hat” to Shakespeare and here is quietly convincing as Raymond Deagan, a quiet, decent Negro (in the vernacular of the day) widower and a parent of a daughter, who takes over his father’s gardening business and runs a garden shop on the side. Little by little, his friendship with Cathy grows.
It is difficult role because in the 1950’s African-Americans were expected to be deferential — indeed, invisible, as Ralph Ellison would point out — and stay “in their place.”
That place, for an African-American gardener, was not conspicuously at the side of a well-to-do white housewife. Not at a time when vicious gossips such as Mona Lauder (Ellen Peterson, in another fine supporting performance) were playing their trade.

But at one point Raymond takes Cathy on a dangerous rendezvous into a restaurant usually frequented only by blacks, and he encounters a clientele and owners who are as hostile as the owners of a white-owned drugstore where the couple also meets.
Speakeasy mainstay Kerry Dowling has some nice moments in supporting roles, including newspaper reporter Mrs. Leacock, who generates a firestorm when noting that Cathy is “nice to Negroes,” a two-edged sword if there ever was one in her social circle.
The estimable Scott Edmiston directs, and the emotional content of Greenberg’s book survives intact.
Eric Levenson’s set design features eclectic frames and doors, especially handy for a scene in an art gallery.
Charles Schoonmaker’s period-perfect costumes coordinate nicely with Karen Perlow’s lighting, especially the lovely orange hues of the “Autumn in Connecticut” number.”
The decision to make the 1950’s — a black-and white era if there ever was one — colorful was a good one.
Musical director Steven Bergman leads a six-piece ensemble that is in balance with the many splendid voices.
“Far From Heaven” is very much worth seeing, as the superb production values and the skills of the cast and director ultimately triumph over a somewhat pedestrian score.
The Speakeasy Stage Company production of the new musical “Far From Heaven.” Directed by Scott Edmiston. At the Calderwood Pavilion in the Boston Center for the Arts through Oct. 11. Tickets $25-61. http://www.speakeasystage.com.

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