Far From Perfect: Fifties Period Piece Far From Heaven Is All Style and No Substance

Musical adaptation fails to live up to Todd Haynes's 2002 film

Kelli O’Hara and Nancy Anderson in Far From Heaven.

Kelli O’Hara and Nancy Anderson in Far From Heaven.

Turning the great 2002 film Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes’s magnificent satire of Hollywood’s “women’s pictures” from the sanitized, repressed 1950s, into a stylized musical at Playwrights Horizons in liberated 2013 is a risky gambit. Despite the formidable talents involved, it turns out to be a big, flat disappointment. This is unsurprising. Dramatic movies that morph into splashy stage musicals usually fail to live up to the standards that made them memorable in the first place. Stage history is littered with the musically mutilated, critically autopsied cadavers of On the Waterfront, East of Eden, A Raisin in the Sun, The Member of the Wedding and on and on. Adding Far From Heaven to the ghost parade is especially disheartening, because it had so much potential and seemed like such a sure thing. It retained the bright colors, lavish settings and intense camera movements that were trademarks of those lush, ripe, Technicolor Douglas Sirk soap operas like Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life and Written on the Wind. But Mr. Haynes was not interested in remakes; using the glamour-glazed heartbreak of one weepie in particular—a glossy 1955 hit called All That Heaven Allows—as a template, he constructed a revisionist arc beyond the perimeters of melodrama to reveal the dark shadows lurking behind the organdy curtains of perfect white-bread Hartford, Conn., in the Eisenhower era. To discuss the failures of the new stage musical, it is necessary to take a second look at what Mr. Haynes accomplished in the acclaimed 2002 film of the same name.

In All That Heaven Allows, affluent suburban widow Cathy Whitaker (valentine-faced Jane Wyman) scandalized her friends, her college-age children and the snobs in her Connecticut country club when she fell in love with a much younger hunk (Rock Hudson) who also happened to be (holy hairspray!) her flannel-shirted and perennially tanned gardener. A laughable conflict now, but a cause for much heavy breathing in 1955 among frustrated housewives (Mr. Hudson, in retrospect, was a heady alternative to the Betty Crocker cookbook) and sexually confused teenage girls and boys (some of whom did not, at the time, know why).  So along comes the gifted and precocious Mr. Haynes, who offered a tantalizing second look at a naïve period in our national conscience when the man brought home the bacon and the little woman fried it, between perfecting home economics, helping the kids with homework, doing good works for charity, arranging cocktail parties, perfecting seven different ways to serve Velveeta and trying to live up to the values of Ozzie and Harriet. But, Far From Heaven asked, what if Ozzie was secretly gay, and the gardener Harriet fell for was black?

Homosexuality, prejudice, interracial relations—subjects forbidden on the screen in the gray-on-gray ’50s—could fuel real hatred and gossip, and setting his film in the same time frame turned the concept for All That Heaven Allows into something very Far From Heaven indeed.

With direction by Michael Greif and a score by Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie—the creative team responsible for the sensational Grey Gardens—and a revised book by the prolific Richard Greenberg, the yellow leaves fall while Kelli O’Hara (lacking the pathos of both Jane Wyman and her 2002 equivalent, Julianne Moore) sings about “Autumn in Connecticut” while her handsome husband Frank (Steven Pasquale, bravely failing to muster even a fraction of Dennis Quaid’s unforgettable portrait of tortured manhood in the film) is arrested for loitering in front of a gay bar. The period clothes, the matching shoes and handbags, the dry martinis, the Lana Turner hair that never moves even in a windstorm—the trappings are there in Allen Moyer’s antiseptic sets and Catherine Zuber’s re-creation of Edith Head costumes. But despite the style, there is no substance. Kelli O’Hara sings like a dream, but what she’s singing is mere lip service to the thorny subtext that is tearing her life apart. She plans menus and plants zinnias while her husband drinks too many vodka stingers, hiding the fact that their perfect lives are festering. But the literal playing-out of the narrative ends up as superficial as the plastic values Todd Haynes was trying to expose on film in the first place. Watching the story unfold out of context, it’s just another story—and not a very interesting one at that. And as an ordinary, unexceptional story dramatized in 2013, it lacks relevance. What’s so shocking about a woman who embraces the only man she can talk to, who happens to be black, or a man who discovers he’s gay? In fact, when his shrink prescribes electroshock aversion therapy to achieve “full heterosexual conversion,” the audience at the performance I attended burst out laughing.

In opposition to the fine work they did in Grey Gardens, the songs Mr. Frankel and Mr. Korie have written here are mock-operatic, Sondheim-derivative and embarrassingly banal. After Ms. O’Hara catches her husband in the arms of another man, she is actually forced to sing, “Maybe there’s a book or pamphlet … a tip sheet I can read … practical advice and pointers … to be the wife you need.” To prove he’s not your typical black servant, the gardener (Isaiah Johnson, in fine voice) actually sings a talky aria about the painter Miró. But the worst of it lands in the larynx of the valiant Mr. Pascal as the straight-and-narrow husband whose path takes a cruel detour. When he finally leaves Cathy for a boy half his age, he croons, “I thought I could get well and be a normal human being … But when I lost my heart I found it when I fell … I never meant to hurt the kids or you … I only know how much I never knew.” The ultimate irony is that Cathy, the centrifugal force behind every other life in the play, is left with no life of her own, trapped in her own hell with no skills and no prospects, alone with her meatloaf, her waxed floors and the responsibilities of a single mother. Nothing like that ever happened to Barbara Stanwyck. In this respect, the musical is true to the Todd Haynes film, but you see the impact without feeling it.

Musically, there’s nothing to write home about either. Everyone in the cast is forced to hit notes that aren’t always comfortable to sing or listen to. Worst of all, the sets turn into revolving cages, to the audience’s continual annoyance. Obviously the cages are metaphors for souls behind bars. For people who try to look beyond the surface of things and end up paying a terrible price, the characters in Far From Heaven are cardboard paper dolls. They make music, but there’s no music in the sound.

 rreed@observer.com