Saturday, February 13, 2016

Terrifically Smart Portrayal Takes Porchlight's 'Far From Heaven' to an Elevated State of Being -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Far From Heaven
a recent musical based on the movie
Porchlight Theatre Company
at Stage 773, Chicago
Thru March 13

The 1950s, especially the latter half, are often portrayed and/or recalled as a particularly idyllic time in America.

In-between wars, it was--seemingly, as I wasn't alive then--a time of peace and prosperity, with manicured lawns, eternally-employed men who dressed like Bogie, housewives who looked like Donna Reed and righteous family values only challenged by the pelvis of Elvis.

Yet while legends like Willie Mays and Chuck Berry and Miles Davis are innately woven into my familiarity with the '50s, given the reality of "Whites Only" drinking fountains and rest rooms, as well as far graver indignities, the era's mythic American Dream was often nightmarish--or at best, unjust--for African-Americans and other people of color.

And homosexuals certainly couldn't live freely out in the open.

I find it somewhat hard to believe--and yet I don't--that my mom, who grew up in Chicago and went to Northwestern, doesn't recall knowing of any gay people in her high school or college existence, nor personally encountering any blacks (or Latinos, Asians or anyone who wasn't white) except for a family cleaning lady.

So the Leave It to Beaver sense of the 1950s seems to shortchange just how ostracized and/or marginalized many Americans were made to feel.

Including anyone who demonstrated empathy and kindness for those the majority denigrated.

Much of the above feeds into the terrain of Far From Heaven, a 2002 film written directed by Todd Haynes--he also made last year's Carol, which reflects similar abiding sensibilities--and then a 2013 musical adaptation that ran Off-Broadway and is now getting its Chicago Premiere by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773.

Photo Credit on all: Brandon Dahlquist
For no good reason, especially as I own it on DVD, I've never seen the Far From Heaven movie starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert.

I intend to remedy this ASAP, but am somewhat glad to have let the musical be my first encounter with the material. (I've long been basically familiar with the film's premise and stylistic homage to the 1950s melodramas of director Douglas Sirk.)

Supposedly the musical's book by noted playwright Richard Greenberg hews closely to the movie, and while providing a SPOILER ALERT opportunity to bail out of this review, I don't think my divulging the basic setup will detract from either the film or stage version.

Cathy Whitaker, played exquisitely here by Summer Naomi Smart, is a relatively stereotypical housewife ostensibly living the good life in Hartford, Connecticut, with her successful executive husband Frank (a fine Brandon Springman) and two chipper kids (Aaron Stone and Tori Whaples at the performance I saw).

Though there are hints of silent suffocation--reminiscent of Revolutionary Road--beneath Cathy's organic resplendence (with great kudos to costumer Bill Morey for outfitting Smart in a plethora of divine dresses), her world is really rocked when she catches Frank in a homosexual liaison.

With too much grace--and risk of public humiliation--to let this overtly drive her to pieces, Cathy continues to play her part, while concurrently developing a close friendship with her African-American gardener, Raymond Deagan (Evan Tyrone Martin, who quite adroitly calibrates an intricate role).

While a number called "Miro," revolving around Cathy and Raymond bumping into each other at a museum exhibition, artfully depicts all that can be derived from venturing beyond the norm--"Sometimes it's the people outside our world we confide in best," he imparts, while Joan MirĂ³'s abstractions contrast the conventionality of the Whitaker home--other scenes and songs reflect the scorn their friendship engenders.

Shrewdly, in addition to the derision Cathy incurs from a neighborhood busybody (Anne Sheridan Smith) and her own best friend (Bri Sudia, who I recalled fondly from Northlight's Shining Lives), we are shown the scorn Raymond receives from his community.

Also wrenching is the way Frank is compelled--initially by Cathy, whose enlightenment evolves over time--to seek treatment for his "illness."

I believe Far From Heaven could aptly be described as a chamber musical, as there are no chorus numbers, only a modicum of dancing to be found and substantial drama.

Not only in its title but its intimate tale of a wife (and her family) persevering through secretive challenges, Far From Heaven reminded me of Next To Normal, which preceded it as a stage piece though wasn't based on an earlier movie.

Especially coming on the heels of my seeing a brilliant touring rendition of Cabaret, which I believe one of the greatest musicals in all-encompassing ways, I can't quite call Far From Heaven a phenomenal musical, but several of the songs--which I was hearing without the benefit of familiarity--deftly add to the poignancy of the movie's (presumed) storyline.

Included in the score by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie--whose Grey Gardens musical is their greatest claim to fame, but who also wrote Doll, which I enjoyed as a reading at Ravinia way back when--are such fine tunes as "Marital Bliss," "Sun and Shade," "The Only One," "Tuesdays, Thursdays" and "Heaven Knows."

So whether or not you've seen the movie, there are several reasons why Far From Heaven deserves your attention as a stage piece, and Porchlight merits regard for debuting it in Chicago despite the show never getting a Broadway transfer even with a sterling Off-Broadway cast (Kelli O'Hara, Steven Pasquale).

But with all due respect and admiration to Porchlight--which regularly does stellar work--this production's director Rob Lindley, a fine scenic design by Robert Hornbostel, splendid costumes and excellence throughout the cast, crew and band, the primary reason to see Far From Heaven here and now is its star, Summer Naomi Smart.

I've had the pleasure of seeing Smart in several shows around Chicagoland (My One and Only, Anything Goes, Mary Poppins, Barnum and more) and have always found her rather luminous.

I don't mean this too salaciously--not that I'm above it--but her combination of beauty, onstage effervescence and superb vocal talents have made her one of my favorite musical theater actresses in the area, and candidly contributed to my wishing to see Far From Heaven.

And with my praise echoed by the Chicago Tribune and pretty much every other review I've yet noted, I've never seen her any better than she is here.

Though she looks fantastic and sings wonderfully, it is her acting that truly makes this performance close to heavenly. To reflect Stepfordish naivety, doting motherhood, heartbreaking anguish, internal struggle, steely resolve, external courage and more--often within mere moments--cannot be easy, yet Smart handles it all with great aplomb.

She's essentially perfect as Cathy Whitaker, and it's hard to imagine anyone playing the role significantly better.

Perhaps watching Julianne Moore's Oscar nominated (and numerous other awards-winning) portrayal in the movie, as I soon intend to do, will challenge that notion, but especially with tickets under $24 (+ fees) on HotTix--and also discounted on Goldstar--at the very least you can see a Broadway-caliber performance for an astonishing-Chicago-theater-scene bargain.

Though it deserves a regional shelf-life, and shouldn't cost a fortune to stage save for its Jackie O-ish dress budget, Far From Heaven isn't likely to be mounted often. And this production, with exemplary performances not only by Smart, is probably even better than the musical itself.

All the more reason you'd be far from folly to put yourself in the vicinity of Belmont and Racine before March 13.


Unknown said...

A beautiful production so beautifully captured in this review.

Unknown said...

A beautiful production so beautifully captured in this review.