Monday, July 30, 2012

You Want to Make a Musical Out of That?: Far from Heaven, New Girl in Town

Charlie Plummer, Alexa Niziak, and Kelli O’Hara in Far From Heaven (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The biggest deal at the Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer is a new musical of the 2002 Todd Haynes movie Far from Heaven starring Kelli O’Hara, who has taken a couple of weeks off from her Broadway show Nice Work If You Can Get It to perform in the Berkshires. Any chance to see O’Hara, a pure-voiced, remarkably expressive singer who is also a first-rate actress, is worth taking, and in the role of Cathy Whitaker – played on film by Julianne Moore – she sings superbly and conveys affectingly the bafflement of a quietly elegant, optimistic 1950s New England housewife who suddenly discovers that all of her assumptions about her life and her community are false. Moore, whose beauty is somehow touching and remote at the same time, brought to the part a sense of profound alienation; O’Hara, who has a gift for plumbing the depths of conventional characters, comes at it from a different perspective.

Composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie are drawn to unusual projects, to say the least. They wrote the score for Grey Gardens, which was based on the Maysles Brothers’ documentary about those cousins of Jackie Kennedy’s, mother and daughter, who lived in poverty in a dilapidated Long Island mansion with dozens of cats; and in Happiness, which had a limited run at Lincoln Center, all the characters are dead people, the victims of a bus crash, who each have to dig into their memories for a moment of perfect happiness before they’re permitted to proceed to their eternal rest. It seems almost superfluous to point out that neither of these musicals works, though Happiness, which was directed and choreographed by the resourceful Susan Stroman, had a knockout of an opening number, and the flashback section of Grey Gardens that took up all of act one – the part of the narrative that the writers (Doug Wright supplied the book) had to invent – seemed grounded in some kind of playable narrative, unlike the ghoulish, inscrutable second act.

Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert in Far from Heaven (2002)
Possibly Far from Heaven, a collaboration with playwright Richard Greenberg, is even more of a head-scratcher. Why would anyone want to turn Haynes’s movie into a musical? It’s about a Hartford, Connecticut Mattron who discovers that her husband is gay and then falls in love with her African-American gardener. Haynes intended it as a corrective to the Technicolor soap operas of the fifties that tamped down homoerotic subplots and relegated black characters to demeaning subsidiary roles, and its ideal audience seemed to be made up of academics with a fondness for post-modern deconstruction and serious admirers of Douglas Sirk’s glossy hothouse melodramas, who have often claimed that Sirk rebelled against the social constrictions of his era in histrionic pictures like Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows. I don’t think much of Sirk, but his movies are seldom boring; Far from Heaven, by contrast, is arid and theoretical – though no less preposterous. Haynes creates an alternative version of the fifties that borders on the Martian. Raymond, the gardener (played by Dennis Haysbert), is highly cultivated and can speak articulately on a variety of subjects; the only thing he doesn’t seem to know anything about is gardening, and we never see him do any. Yet despite his intelligence, he’s shocked when his squiring a white woman around draws unpleasant attention, as if he’d never heard of racism. Haynes is so eager to show us how superior this black man is that he draws him as if he’d been dropped into New England from some sociologically advanced planet. The movie is so fanatically bent on pushing through its thesis that it winds up looking idiotic. The point of casting Dennis Quaid, an almost iconically straight actor, as a closeted homosexual is that we’d never imagine he might be. But instead we don’t believe he could be, which isn’t the same thing. Haynes’s strategies run to making the Whitakers’ little boy effeminate and their little girl a tomboy, to show us that children can sometimes elude gender stereotypes.

So what is the musical like? Well, Greenberg doesn’t duplicate Haynes’s mistake with the kids (who are played, convincingly, by Charlie Plummer and Alexa Niziak) and the casting – Steven Pasquale as Frank, the husband, and Brandon Victor Dixon as Raymond – doesn’t draw attention to itself the way Haynes meant it to. In fact, the entire show is plausible; the writers have removed all the irony except for the essential one, that passions either unacknowledged or expressly condemned in 1950s America are being played out against the pictorial canvas of an idealized autumnal New England cityscape. (The work of all three designers – Allen Moyer on sets, Catherine Zuber on costumes, and Kenneth Posner on lighting – is laudable.) And little as I thought of the movie, without irony Far from Heaven is colorless, except at the moments when the lyrical expression of Frank’s desires becomes purplish and ridiculous. (My best guess is that you just can’t turn a man’s confession to his wife that he likes to sleep with men into an aria.) That’s not the only reason you feel sorry for Pasquale, who works hard at the role. Frank’s misery at being boxed into a life he’s unsuited for and his failure at repressing his sexual feelings make him act out: he gets unpleasantly drunk, he insults Cathy in public and on one occasion he hits her in private. We’re meant to feel his pain, of course, but he behaves like such a jerk that it’s hard to have much sympathy for him in a play that (like the movie) is almost completely in Cathy’s point of view. On the other hand, the role of Raymond is so underwritten that Dixon, who has a very sweet way with a song, barely makes any sort of dramatic impression.

Michael Grief’s production is economically staged as well as being beautifully sung. (The show isn’t through-sung, but a good three-quarters of the libretto is made up of Korie’s lyrics. Lawrence Yurman is the musical director.) Of the eighteen-member ensemble, only Alison Fraser, as the gossipmonger Mona Lauder, isn’t up to the demands of Frankel’s tricky music, and her stylized acting doesn’t come off. Nancy Anderson as Cathy’s best friend Ellie, is especially good, and young Alexa Niziak has a gorgeous voice. Her duet with O’Hara, “Once Upon a Time,” is one of the musical highlights; the others are the duet between O’Hara and Dixon that ends the first act, “The Only One,” and a dramatic piece O’Hara performs near the end of the evening, “Tuesdays, Thursdays,” which really shows her off, both as a singer and as an actor. Frankel has a talent for writing ballads; Grey Gardens contains a couple of beauties (“Will You?” and “Another Winter in a Summer Town”). It’s a puzzle why he and his collaborators thought a musical of Far from Heaven would work. Stripped of its irony, it becomes a dull cautionary fable about prejudice and repression, and the idea of using the shortcomings of the Eisenhower era as an excuse for twenty-first-century editorializing is singularly unappealing; it makes the writers appear smugly superior, and it encourages liberal audiences to join in the self-congratulation.

Margaret Loesser Robinson and Cliff Bemis in New Girl in Town (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Bob Merrill is probably best known for writing the lyrics (to Jule Styne’s music) for Funny Girl, but he had other distinctions. As composer-lyricist he was associated with the only two Broadway musicals, I believe, ever derived from the plays of Eugene O’Neill, New Girl in Town (1957), based on Anna Christie, and Take Me Along (1959), from Ah, Wilderness! (I saw Take Me Along with my parents when I was a kid, and I still recall Jackie Gleason as the cheerful, unregenerate drunk Sid and Walter Pigeon singing the newspaperman Nat Miller’s anthem to keeping an open heart and a liberal mind, “Staying Young”: “I’m staying young / While everyone around me’s growing old.”) It’s easy to imagine Ah, Wilderness!, O’Neill’s only comedy, as a musical; Hollywood tried one, too, in the late forties called Summer Holiday. (Unhappily, it’s awful.) But Anna Christie is a drama about a whore who comes to live with her Swedish papa, Chris, a bargeman who sent her to live with cousins on a farm when she was a girl and hasn’t seen her since. He has no idea how she’s been making a living, and neither does Matt, the Irish sailor who falls for her, though Chris’s live-in girl friend, a hard-bitten dame named Marthy, recognizes the signs as soon as Anna arrives. This is one of O’Neill’s earliest full-length plays, and you can see him working out themes that he’d revisit throughout his career:  the ghosts of the past, the irresistible draw of the sea. It also contains a great many references to the inescapability of fate. Yet surprisingly he gives it a happy ending: Matt finds out about Anna’s past but eventually he forgives her and they settle down together. Merrill and George Abbott, who wrote the book, wouldn’t have been foolhardy enough to try to musicalize The Iceman Cometh or A Moon for the Misbegotten, but Anna Christie has the arc of a romantic melodrama. And this obscure show, currently in a revival by New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre (an organization that has also revived Take Me Along), turns out to be charming. It has second-act problems – the last scene, which the Irish Rep may have attempted (unsuccessfully) to fix, is a mess – but also a homespun, portside atmosphere that Merrill’s lilting, old-fashioned music picks up in numbers like “Roll Yer Socks Up,” “At the Check Apron Ball” and the marvelous saloon ballad “Sunshine Girl,” which plays on in your head hours after you’ve left the theatre. And Charlotte Moore’s sweet, evocative production, ingeniously choreographed by Barry McNabb, uses the intimacy of the Irish Rep space to tremendous advantage.

Anna Christie won a Pulitzer Prize in 1922, though it’s mostly famous for Pauline Lord’s legendary performance in the title role and for the impression Greta Garbo made when M-G-M used it as the vehicle to escort her into talkies in 1930. The play is heavy and overwritten; there are good reasons why it’s not among the O’Neills that receive regular revivals. (Liv Ullmann starred in it on Broadway in 1977, and the Roundabout Theatre mounted a critically acclaimed production nearly twenty years ago with Natasha Richardson and Liam Neeson, though it wasn’t very good. London’s Donmar Warehouse produced it last year with Jude Law as Matt.) Abbott and Merrill eliminate all the talk of fate and “dat ol’ dabbil sea” (Chris’s phrase) and concentrate on the two romances, Anna and Matt’s and Chris and Marthy’s; it’s Marthy’s jealousy of Chris’s attention to his daughter and his insistence on treating her like a maiden in need of protection that provoke her, when she’s in her cups, into hinting at Anna’s past. New Girl in Town, which was written for Gwen Verdon and choreographed by her then-husband Bob Fosse, two years after they’d scored a shared hit in Damn Yankees, is modest but pleasurable, and the Irish Rep is to be commended for giving audiences a chance to hear songs like “Anna Lilla” and “Did You Close Your Eyes?,” which even most musical-theatre aficionados probably don’t know.

The first of these is sung by Cliff Bernis as Chris; the second is a duet for Anna (Margaret Loesser Robinson) and Matt (Patrick Cummings). The two men are quite effective, especially Bernis, but Robinson gives a hyperactive performance; she seems determined to play all of the neurosis O’Neill sifted into the role of Anna when he created her, and she does so many things that you get distracted. Danielle Ferland isn’t really old enough to play Marthy (Thelma Ritter originated the role in 1957) but she’s got the right hard-boiled attitude and her singing is just as sure and confident as it was when she played Little Red Riding Hood at sixteen in Into the Woods. The four men and three women who constitute the chorus and play small roles – Dewey Caddell, Matt Gibson, Alex Puette, Stephen Zinnato, Abby Church, Kimberly Dawn Neumann and Amber Stone – are personable and adept; the dancing is excellent, as are the harmonies in “Sunshine Girl.”  And Mary Jo Dondlinger’s lighting design does a great deal to enhance the Little Old New York seedy-bar ambiance.  So does Zinnato’s saxophone, which is woven throughout the production as he leans against an upstage pillar or trails sinuously through James Morgan’s set.  This is the second musical I’ve seen by the Irish Rep; the first, Ernest in Love (an adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest), was also staged cleverly and sung full-heartedly.  I won’t miss the next one.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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