06/03/2013 09:56 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2013

First Nighter: "Far From Heaven," the 2002 Movie, Adapted (Not Well) for the Musical Stage

People giddily adapting properties into musicals used to say of the source material--plays, novels, movies, whatever--that "it cried out for musical expression." Somehow over the past couple of decades, things seemed to have changed. Nowadays, many tuner-smiths give the impression they're more interested in putting something on the stage that doesn't cry out for musical expression, doesn't even meekly whisper for it.
You'd think that the 2002 flick Far From Heaven about a Hartford, Connecticut housewife in 1957 whose husband leaves her for a man and who's romantically drawn to a liaison with her African-American gardener wouldn't exactly be musical comedy fodder.
You might think that, but thinking differently at Playwrights Horizons are librettist Richard Greenberg (his Assembled Parties should win next Sunday's Tony for best play but maybe won't), lyricist Michael Korie and composer Scott Frankel. They've forged ahead and turned Far From Heaven into a vehicle for the glorious voiced Kelli O'Hara, who has producers lined up to sign her to whatever they've got cooking.
Korie and Frankel are the team who gussied up the Maysles Brothers documentary Grey Gardens into a swell two-act musical--the later Little Edie Beale-and-controling-mom scenes better than the first. Of course, that might have seemed an unlikely choice to some, but little Edie did want to be a singer--was for a while at the late, lamented Reno Sweeney--which made the undertaking valid.
Unfortunately, this time--though the PH production is, as usual, impeccable (Allen Moyer set, Peter Nigrini projections design, Kenneth Posner lighting, Nevin Steinberg sound)--Korie, Frankel and Greenberg haven't pulled off the challenging trick. Okay, it hardly can be deemed Greenberg's problem, since he's stuck notably close to the film's plot, and undoubtedly should have.
But Korie and Frankel, who concocted several wonderfully tuneful, amusing and trenchant ditties for their Grey Gardens, have decided that for this PH follow-up, a line of discrete numbers wasn't the way to go. Although the program does list what they've contributed as individual items--24 of 'em, not counting reprises--theirs is mostly a sung-through opus.
Indeed, like Stephen Sondheim's Passion--Sondheim's musical and lyric tropes are echoed throughout--the result is to accustom the audience not even to applaud at the end of the musical interludes, no matter that they have the kind of endings signaling for applause. It's as if there's something shameful in today's musical comedies--scratch the "comedy" part--about courting applause. It's as if it's merely a cheap device, woefully Book of Morman-ish.
Even when a cute number like "Marital Bliss"--in which the friends of protagonist Cathy Whitaker (O'Hara) sing about what isn't necessarily marital bliss--Korie and Frankel, along with director Michael Greif, see to it the song peters out before spectators have an opportunity to acknowledge its comic appeal. What happens is that the 24 songs are run into each other in such a way that, as a chum of mine put it with grave disappointment, "They all sound alike."
He's right. They do. Sure, some of the melodies--the repeated one sung by Cathy's children (Jake Lucas, Julianna Rigoglioso)--are perkier (if owing plenty to Sondheim hey-there-say-there rhyme conceits) and others are gloomier, as are the threnodies delivered by Cathy, philandering hubby Frank (Steven Pasquale) and gardener Raymond Deagan (Isaiah Johnson). Nevertheless, Far From Heaven sounds like one attenuated melodic line.
Ironically, the one time a thrilling outcry is called for, there is none. At one point in the well-played proceedings, Cathy and Frank, as their marriage is crumbling, have an argument during which he inadvertently slaps her. Contrite, he walks up the metal staircase unit--an important feature of Moyer's set for its symbolic cage-like quality--and leaves Cathy alone. Does she express her most wounded thoughts when it appears she ought to? Nope. She also wanders off, apparently at a loss for words, music and lyrics. Had there been a song there, eventually cut? We'll never know.
It could be said there's nothing wrong with the Frankel-Korie method, that opera is constructed in the same way, don't you know? True enough, and with its dark themes, Far From Heaven might be a more likely candidate for opera treatment. It could even be said that opera treatment is what it gets here. Yet Korie's continual rhyming proclaims that he and Frankel are doggedly remaining in musical comedy mode.
Reiterating the sad suburban tale that Todd Hayes worked up for the movie he directed, the cast does a fine job--and probably would have had someone like Greenberg rearranged the proceedings as a straight play. Pasquale is a leading man who does the brooding male well and surely boasts a baritone worth commending. Johnson has the right blend of strength and vulnerability and also sings mightily.
Nancy Anderson as best-friend-until-she-isn't Eleanor Fine turns in the kind of convincing performance she gives no matter what's called for. (Are producers lining up for her? They should be.) Even the wonderful Alma Cuervo, though wasted in the cliché role of a town gossip, comes through when needed.
Then there's O'Hara in the series of high-waisted dresses and voluminous coats Catherine Zuber has designed for her. (Everybody seems to know she's pregnant.) In a way, she's playing a role she's played before--as Nellie Forbush in the most recent and most marvelous revival of South Pacific. Again she's a woman falling for a man in a social climate where race is a bitterly divisive issue.
There's no question that O'Hara is one of today's superb leading ladies, and she brings conviction to every moment of Cathy's unfair but realistic plight. This undoubtedly accounts for the standing ovation she gets at the curtain call. But how must she feel singing so much of this unrewarding score after spending a couple seasons delivering the great Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers classics? She may feel fine, but ticket buyers, were they polled, might not report that they're satisfied. Far From Heaven? Far from heavenly.