“Far From Heaven” is a rugged, contemporary musical plunge into the 1950s, when conformity reigned supreme, and a crackling undercurrent of bigotry, racism and homophobia growled under an idealistic “Ozzie and Harriet,” “Stepford Wives‘“ veneer.
We’re not talking about Birmingham, Ala. We’re looking in our front yards, in Hartford, Conn.; but in 1957, it could have been any New England community.
Based on the 2002 Focus Features/Vulcan Productions romantic melodrama-film, written and directed by Todd Haynes, award-winning playwright Richard Greenberg’s two-act “Far From Heaven” tackles then-taboo issues that were gossiped about, but not openly discussed. Racial prejudice and homophobia remain hot topics today, but New England society is more enlightened and educated. Nevertheless, old prejudices remain behind closed doors.
SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production is buoyed with award-winning Scott Frankel’s music (he wrote the scores for “Grey Gardens,” “Finding Neverland,” and more) and his lyricist partner, Michael Korie (also of “Grey Gardens,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Harvey Milk,” and others).“Far From Heaven’s” songs aren’t their greatest coup, but they help tell the story, serving as the characters’ dialogue at times, and revealing their innermost torments, troubles, hopes and revelations.
Director Scott Edmiston has gathered a superior cast, crew, and six-piece band, under the apt leadership of award-winning Music Director Steven Bergman, who lends dramatic heft on keyboard. Charles Schoomaker’s costumes are a 1950’s visual feast, as is Karen Perlow’s richly-hued lighting.
Unfortunately, some of Boston’s finest performers have smaller roles, but they’re a treat to watch, such as versatile Will McGarrahan, as Dr. Bowman and Morris Farnsworth, and Ellen Peterson as gossipmonger Mona.
SpeakEasy Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault was fortunate to enlist Boston favorite, Jennifer Ellis, to replace Erica Spyres in the starring role of Cathy Whitaker. Spyres left before rehearsals began, to star in a national touring company production.
Ellis is ideal as the “perfect” Hartford upper-class wife of successful, handsome Frank Whitaker (Jared Troilo). In the opening song, she rejoices in “Autumn in Connecticut,” against an autumnal orange background, with leaves gently falling on her. She and Frank are the envy of their friends. Besides being the pretty, feminine idol, she’s the charming feature story of fawning newspaper society editor-reporter Mrs. Leacock (Kerry A. Dowling).
Cathy’s world is shaken when Frank is arrested for “loitering,” and she must go to the police station to get him. He’s upset. Enraged. He insists he’s a victim of mistaken identity. Suddenly, Cathy’s world is shattered.
Yes, Frank is a wonderful father to their two children, Janice (Audree Hedequist) and David (Josh Sussman). Yes, he’s a successful, admired pillar of Hartford’s society, until Cathy discovers him in a compromising tryst with another man, when he’s “working late at the office”.
Instead of confiding to her best friend, Eleanor Fine (Aimee Doherty), Cathy bonds with her African-American widowed gardener, Raymond Deagan (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), igniting a flurry of gossip that ends disastrously. Raymond, a single father with a 10-year-old daughter, Sarah (Sophia Mack), is atypical. He’s educated, attends art exhibits, is well-spoken - a real mensch.
During the Whitakers’ downward spiral, Cathy and Raymond grow closer in duet “Sun and Shade,” and Cathy later experiences what it’s like to be “The Only One,” in a stirring duet with Raymond, when he takes her to a restaurant on “the other side of town”. Despite psychiatric counseling and a “second honeymoon” trip to Miami, Frank is increasingly tormented with his “affliction” and can’t fight it any longer. Also, Cathy and Raymond can’t fight the erupting violent racist tide, banning their relationship. Portraying a Miami nightclub crooner, Darren Bunch draws big applause performing a mood-setting, “Wandering Eyes,” and Audree Hedequist shines in her duet with Ellis in “Once Upon A Time”.
“Far From Heaven” isn’t your usual song-and-dance, happy-tappy, escapist 1950s musical, but its message resounds loud and clear.
BOX INFO: SpeakEasy Stage Company presents the Boston premiere of Richard Greenberg’s musical, two-act play, “Far From Heaven,” featuring a Boston star-studded cast, with music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, appearing through Oct. 11,at Boston Center for the Arts, Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, Roberts Studio Theatre, 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Performances:Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m.; Sunday,3 p.m. Check for post-show events. Tickets start at $25. For more information, visit www.SpeakEasyStage.com,call 617-933-8600.