Where: Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through March 13
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Turning movies into stage musicals is a popular pastime, but it really serves a purpose only if the result improves on—or at least illuminates—the original.
Alas, Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie’s (lyrics) 2013 “Far From Heaven” is a heavy-handed makeover of Todd Haynes’ 2002 film about the dark underside of the affluent Eisenhower-era suburban life, which in turn was a take on soaps such as Douglas Sirk’s 1955 “All That Heaven Allows.”
Part of the blame goes to Richard Greenberg’s book, which follows the plot points of the film so closely, it comes across as a paint-by-numbers exercise with very little heart. Frankel and Korie, of “Grey Gardens” and “Finding Neverland” fame, have written a few good songs—”Sun and Shade,” “Miró,” “A Picture in Your Mind”—and the jazzier parts of the score are moderately interesting, but most of it sounds like one long ballad with variations, and after a while it becomes boring and bombastic. This is especially true since it’s sung-through with very little dialogue and a lot of dissonance in a contemporary style that more-or-less mimics opera—with lyrics that often are equally banal. And unlike in most musicals, there’s very, very little dancing.
The main reason to see Porchlight Music Theatre’s Chicago premiere is the fine performance by Summer Naomi Smart as Cathy Whitaker (Julianne More in the movie), the thoroughly decent, thoughtful wife who tries to cope as her world falls apart around her. Besides singing beautifully, she brings subtlety and shadings to the mostly reactive role, as she accidentally discovers her ad exec husband Frank (Brandon Springman) making it with another man, forms a socially forbidden friendship with her “Negro” gardener Raymond Deagan (Evan Tyrone Martin), and grapples with gossiping neighbors in the Hartford, Connecticut of 1957. Her composure cracks oh-so-gradually as she strives to be the perfect helpmate to Frank, mother to her two children, friend to Eleanor Fine (Bri Sudia) and the other women in her circle, and perform all the duties that seem increasingly hollow. Still, by the end we get the sense that she’s learned something about herself and has the strength to go on.
Under Rob Lindley’s direction, the rest of the large cast is commendable, too. Frank is a rather underwritten character, but Springman makes the most of his limited interactions with his family and comes into his own with “I Never Knew,” his tearful admission of falling in love with a man. Martin’s Raymond is intelligent, sensitive, and in excellent voice, though the connection between him and Cathy doesn’t quite come through. The others range from Candace C. Edwards’ nicely understated maid Sybil to Anne Sheridan Smith’s deliberately cartoonish gossip Mona Lauder.
While I don’t find the score compelling, it is difficult, and the six-person orchestra led by music director/pianist Chuck Larkin more than does it justice. Of the design elements, Bill Morey’s many 1950s costumes stand out. I have a few quibbles (among them the machine-stitched hems on some of the dresses), but the coats are especially nice, he certainly captures the period, and Smart’s many frocks are stunning, right down to the matching shoes, gloves, and hats.
The same cannot be said for Grant Sabin’s scenic design. While creating an abstract, blocky, dollhouse-like set to convey the boxed-in life of these people may be a boffo, budget-friendly concept, the house frame (with a peak that screws up sightlines), two staircases, and big blocks that make up the furniture are just plain ugly. To make matters worse, the blocks are constantly being rearranged for each scene, which is distracting. William Kirkham’s lighting sometimes bathes the set in jellybean comic strip colors, and sometimes the walls just look drab. Michael Stanfill’s projections are okay for the gallery scene, but the evocations of autumn leaves and other outdoor scenes fall flat.
In sum, “Far From Heaven” is certainly earthbound, but if you can overlook its flaws, Smart’s performance is heavenly, or close.