It’s really hard to pull off a production style that says: “Yoo-hoo, I’m being ironic here!” without patronizing or caricaturing its targets of irony. Todd Haynes executed this risky directorial maneuver in his stylized 2002 movie, “Far From Heaven,” an ironic homage to Douglas Sirk’s 1955 domestic melodrama, “All That Heaven Allows,” itself a more delicately ironic reference to the romantic weepies that Hollywood produced during the socially intolerant and repressive 1950s. But while this musical version of “Far From Heaven” means to notch up the irony, it mainly patronizes and caricatures its targets of irony.
The tidy book by Richard Greenberg (here, there, and everywhere this season, most successfully with “The Assembled Parties”) lines up much too neatly with Haynes’ original screenplay. Set in a postcard-pretty suburb of Connecticut in 1957, the story tracks an ideal marriage that implodes when Frank Whitaker, the perfect hubby played by Steven Pasquale, is caught canoodling with another man, and Cathy Whitaker, the perfect wife played by Kelli O’Hara, takes up with Raymond Deagan, the uber-sensitive African-American gardener played by Isaiah Johnson.
Addressing the heavy-breathing source material in the same overly respectful manner, helmer Michael Greif, composer Scott Frankel, and lyricist Michael Korie (the creative players on “Grey Gardens”) have devised a musical idiom that replicates flat-screen speech and a production style that adjusts theatrical techniques to reflect film conventions. Which, of course, is exactly the kind of literal treatment that you don’t want from a free-wheeling stage musical.
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When lyricists put their heads on their pillows at night, they must dream of O’Hara, whose diamond-sharp voice and precision-cut diction make every narrative word sparkle with intelligence. Since Korie’s lyrics, like Greenberg’s earthbound book, are all narrative, with precious little in the way of thought and feeling, O’Hara’s dazzling way with words makes every banal turn of phrase seem oh-so smart and sensitive.
No such luck for the men in Cathy Whitaker’s life. Her feeble husband (no Don Draper, he) is written and played as a sniveling caricature of the deeply closeted and profoundly tormented gay man of the era. Pasquale, who earned a Tony nom for “Reasons to Be Pretty,” doesn’t do much with the role until the confessional “I Never Knew” throws him a lifeline.
Balancing that bogus characterization, the African-American gardener Cathy admires and comes to love, is a cartoonish figure in his own right, so strong and sensitive and super-manly, he’s equally out of this world. “The Only One” is the only song that gives Johnson a chance to come down to earth and play something more authentic than cardboard heroics.
Frankel and Korie also come through with “Cathy, I’m Your Friend,” a song that transcends narrative and gives Nancy Anderson, as Cathy’s best friend Eleanor Fine, something meatier to work with than the menu for one of the girls’ endless cocktail parties. But for the most part, the score, like the book, succumbs to the banality that it’s trying to send up.
The designers seem to have been given some leeway to slip the visual constraints of working on a stage show that mimics a movie. Catherine Zuber has been wildly successful at flexing her theatrical muscle, by designing costumes that pick up on the color palette and silhouettes of 1950s fashion and take the New Look way, way over the top. The crinoline skirts are pouffier than anything the ladies wore in the Cold War era of 1950s America (or, for that matter, in the 18th-century court of Louis XVI). The intense colors are a rigorously coded blueprint for taking a character’s emotional temperature. Autumnal shades of orange and gold denote a “natural” state of vivid health, while scenes drenched in bluesy blues are lighting designer Kenneth Posner’s visual shorthand for wicked sex.
But the stage itself still basically looks and functions like a movie set. Peter Nigrini’s flat background projections freeze the scenes into old-fashioned tableaux. Meanwhile, a roving metal contraption designed by Allen Moyer and suggestive of a collapsible camera mount, chops up the action into film-like frames. And if someone can discern a choreographed musical number in this inert setting, please send a telegram.