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Paradise Lost and Found

by Ralph Hammann on July 25, 2012

Book by Richard Greenberg, music by Scott Frankel, lyrics by Michael Korie, directed by Michael Greif Williamstown Theatre Festival, through July 29
Far From Heaven

Brandon Victor Dixon and Kelli O'Hara in FAR FROM HEAVEN at WTF, photo by Charles Erickson

While I was not a big fan of the Todd Haynes film on which this new musical was based, I am glad that Messrs. Greenberg, Frankel and Korie were enamored of it. From the raw material of Hayne’s Far From Heaven, they have created a serious musical that is not far from perfect. And aided by Michael Greif’s astute direction, a superb design team, a solid orchestra and a top-notch cast, the WTF production is perfection. Artistic director Jenny Gersten has truly hit her stride as a nurturer of musical theater with this premiere.

Greenberg has pared down the dialogue to its essence and allowed Frankel and Korie to tell the story in somewhat operatic fashion. In most musicals, a song is introduced when what needs to be expressed can’t be accomplished in dialogue alone; here dialogue provides succinct observations and the connective tissue to the nearly sung-through show.

From the very first note of Frankel’s rich, polyrhythmic score that evokes the time period without being trapped in it and the red leaves that seem to flutter choreographically to the stage, we are transported to a picture-perfect suburb of 1957 Hartford, Conn., in autumn. It is a time when great changes are about to unsettle the surface calm of the insular community and undo the lives of two families whose personal lives come under the merciless scrutiny of racial and sexual prejudice.

At the center of the quiet maelstrom is Cathy Whitaker, an upper-middle-class housewife with a dream house, two adorable children, a successful and handsome husband, and a black maid and gardener. Everything exists in a well-manicured, but contrived and artificially satisfying stasis. Cathy, however, is about to undergo a transformation in which she falls from “grace,” loses her illusions, and finds herself. The production benefits enormously from the casting of Kelli O’Hara in this role. O’Hara was one of the few actresses to ever fully humanize and bring depth to Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, and she brings a similarly complex interpretation to Cathy. With her supernal voice and unaffected, nuanced performance, she brings essential notes of naturalism to a show that is heavily (and effectively) stylized in its staging.

Matching her every step of the way is Brandon Victor Dixon as Raymond Deagan, the compassionate gardener whose only misfortune is to be an attractive, single black man in a community where the prevailing perception of the majority is that, despite their ever-present positions of servitude, there are no blacks really living in white suburbia. Poised and exuding warmth, Dixon commands the stage effortlessly and provides an appealing conduit for Cathy to realize her true self. As his young daughter who has but several brief scenes, Talia Hamilton offers poignant moments as a victim of the collateral damage.

Cathy’s troubled husband, Frank, is given a more compelling voice in the musical than in the film. That could be, at least in in part, thanks to actor Steven Pasquale, who makes us feel that Frank’s callous behavior comes from an unfortunate self-loathing inflicted on him by a conservative and cruel society.

In the uniformly strong cast, standouts include Nancy Anderson, Mary Stout, Quincy Tyler Bernstine (whose final “Yes, Ma’am” resonates with quiet force) and young Alexa Niziak, who is one of the most accomplished child actresses I have ever seen.

Greif has directed the show with economy, heart and a panache that slyly references filmic technique while maintaining a fresh, fluid theatricality that makes inventive and eloquent use of Allen Moyer’s elegant scenic design. It is all abetted by Peter Nigrini invaluable projections that evoke the lushness of both Haynes’ film and the ’50s films of Douglas Sirk to which Haynes paid homage. Kudos also to Kenneth Posner’s tightly focused and dramatic lighting design.

Headed to off-Broadway after its Williamstown premiere, Far From Heaven is that rare new musical that charts fresh territory with wit, texture and style to spare.