Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Far from Heaven
Porchlight Music Theatre
Review by John Olson

Also see John's review of The Shape of Things

Love affairs that were "forbidden" for reasons of social unacceptability, such as crossing racial or generational boundaries as well as for violating marriage vows of fidelity, were the stuff of the angst-ridden romantic 1950s dramas of film director Douglas Sirk. Todd Haynes' 2003 film Far from Heaven was an homage to these movies—going one better by including homosexuality, a topic little discussed on film in the '50s—in its mix of forbidden loves. Haynes' original story followed a Connecticut housewife and mother whose perfect world falls apart when her husband leaves her for a young male lover, and her friendship with a sensitive African-American gardener creates a scandal among her suburban Hartford neighbors. Haynes further pastiched Sirk's films by imitating the rich, vibrant colors of their cinematography and their lush musical scores.

So far, so good. High emotional stakes and lush music are good things for a musical play, and in this stage adaptation with book by Richard Greenberg, lyrics by Michael Korie and music by Scott Frankel, the writers wisely refrain from attempting to, however affectionately, imitate the style of another medium. They take the Haynes' story—a good one—commenting on mid-twentieth century American social restrictions that hindered simple human connections and make it its own thing. A dramatic and satiric but not campy stage musical. It works on its own terms, but at a cost.

The late film critic Roger Ebert once said of Sirk's films, "To appreciate a film like Written on the Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman's masterpieces, because Bergman's themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message." Not so with this musical. Bookwriter Greenberg puts the themes clearly on stage and the effect is to create audience derision at these antiquated social mores. It's still a good story, but Greenberg and lyricist Michael Korie distance us emotionally from the characters. Far from Heaven's heroine Cathy Whitaker is initially a Stepford wife, more to be laughed at or at best pitied than feared for. We come to care for her, with much credit due to the lovely portrayal in this Porchlight Music Theatre production by Summer Naomi Smart, but the threats of social ostracization and infidelity seem more comic than they probably should.

Frankel has given the piece a lovely score, though, and it is extremely well sung by Ms. Smart—one of Chicago's very top musical theatre actresses—and the entire cast. Her "friendship interest," I'll call it (love ls not exactly what happens), is sung powerfully and sensitively by Evan Tyrone Smith, while her errant husband Frank Whitaker is the strong baritone Brandon Springman, who also does a fine job of showing us his character's defenses and ultimate breakdown. Bri Sudia deftly manages the duality of Cathy's friend Eleanor, who initially defends Cathy but ultimately turns on her. Even the children, played by at the performance I saw by Aaron Stone and Tori Whaples (they alternate with Nate Becker and Peyton Shaffer), have fully professional voices. The six-piece orchestra accompanying the cast of 19 performers sounds great, but frequently is amplified to overpower the voices.

Director Rob Lindley has cleverly staged the action on a unit set designed by Grant Sabin with a series of doors on a lower level below an upper platform. The concept works well enough, but is a bit neutral and even cheap looking. I would like to have seen a set that did a little more to establish the period as well as Bill Morey's gorgeous costumes do.

Far from Heaven is a good piece, with a rich and complex score that is well served here. Musical theatre fans anxious to see the form advance and take on more serious themes, and to see writers experiment more with structure are likely to be delighted by it. If Greenberg and Korie (and to a lesser degree Lindley) had resisted the temptation to comment on their characters quite so obviously, they might have had an even more powerful work. Even so, the level of artistry here—both from writers and performers—is so high that people who take musicals seriously need to take a look at this show.

Porchlight Music Theatre's Far from Heaven will play Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, through March 13, 2016. For further information and tickets, call 773-327-5252 or visit www.porchlightmusictheatre.com.


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