A melancholy new musical ambitiously crafted from a 2002 film that starred Julianne Moore, “Far From Heaven” centers upon Cathy, a perfect wife and mom – exquisitely played by Kelli O’Hara -- whose lily-white suburban existence in Connecticut falls apart in the late 1950s.
Premiering on Sunday at Playwrights Horizons, the musical steeps a sorrowful domestic drama within a sometimes lovely, more often mournful score by composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, the fine team behind “Grey Gardens,” which was a livelier creation than this would-be sob sister of a show.
Confidently staged with sensitive touches by “Rent”-maker director Michael Greif against mostly somber visuals, the production is performed very capably by an 18-member ensemble.
For all that excellence, this should-be tearjerker does not entirely satisfy.
Not having seen the movie, the plot seems to me fairly predictable, or rather, sadly inevitable – almost simplistically so -- as Cathy’s husband Frank grapples with his taboo urges and she encounters Raymond, a kindly African-American gardener.
You just know practically from the get-go that nothing’s going to work out well for these good people trapped in the 1950s conventions of race, sex and class in their rigid though picturesque New England world. Perhaps that’s the point the authors intend, but it makes for a lugubrious musical.
Regrettably, the text and songs reveal little about Cathy’s interior life and how she got that way. A flashback to Cathy’s earlier times with Frank might be helpful to illuminate both characters. Knowing so little about Cathy other than her sweet, gracious exterior does not invite viewers to share in her pain.
Fortunately, Richard Greenberg, whose new play “The Assembled Parties” is so applauded this season, treats the essentially soapy scenario economically. Music underscores much of the dialogue, which flows naturally into Korie’s persuasive lyrics.
Dynamically impelling the story, Frankel’s jazzy music utilizes mid-20th century pop modes like bee-bop and boogie-woogie for the dramatic sections and otherwise flavorfully infuses the action with period musicality. Among several striking songs, a quiet duet for Cathy and Raymond in an art gallery, “Miro” blends a delicate melody with a poetic lyric.
Several songs noticeably fade away into a dying fall while the darker colors of Bruce Coughlin’s rippling orchestrations for a dozen musicians increase the musical’s rueful quality.
Although the musical critically scants on Cathy’s interior life, Kelli O’Hara’s radiant presence and warm musicality garners sympathy for her long-suffering character. O’Hara offers 50 shades of pensive in her touching performance. (In real life, the actress is pregnant and while the costume designer obviously raises O’Hara’s waistlines and flares the skirts, her condition is evident, which adds an odd visual note to the story.)
Steven Pasquale’s good looks and heroic timbre work ironically well as the tortured, selfish Frank. Isaiah Johnson is low-keyed yet ardent as Raymond. Nancy Anderson is pleasingly tart as Cathy’s semi-best friend. The tiptop company offers sharp cameos by a slinky Alma Cuervo as the town gossip and an ever-darling Mary Stout as several differently fussy matrons. In a slick turn as a Miami band singer, Victor Wallace passionately croons through “Wandering Eyes,” a swooning Latin number.
Designer Catherine Zuber dresses everyone nicely in Eisenhower period clothes, using jewel tones in O’Hara’s voluminous frocks to contrast her figure against Allen Moyer’s dark, somewhat sinister setting of moving skeletal elements. Large, black-bordered panels in the background sometimes provide bursts of vivid color but more often Kenneth Posner’s lighting provides a twilight atmosphere.
The gloomy visuals suggest that the director is trying a bit too hard to milk the potential tears that the musical itself cannot render from the original material. Crafted and performed with smarts and musical artistry, “Far From Heaven” holds your attention but is likely to leave you dry-eyed.
“Far From Heaven” continues through July 7 at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., New York. Call (212) 279-4200 or visit www.ticketcentral.com. ENDIT