The show: "Far From Heaven," "a preview production" of a new musical on the main stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Mass. in the Berkshires.
The title rings a bell: The musical is based on Todd Haynes' screenplay of his 2002 film starring Julianne Moore, Dennis Quaid and Dennis Haysbert.
The one that was inspired by those lush Douglas Sirk movie melodramas ("Imitation of Life," "Magnificent Obsession") from the '50s?: Yes, and this one is set in Hartford — though the film and the musical makes little visual connection to the city. (It actually resembles the then-emerging suburban lifestyle of West Hartford )
The plot?: Potboiler centers on picture perfect marriage during Eisenhower era, with the terrific Kelli O'Hara starring as Cathy Whitaker, the good-hearted, socially-conscious housewife who sees her seemingly ideal marriage begin to crumble after she discovers her exec husband Frank (Steven Pasquale) in a clinch with another man. Wracked with guilt, he tries to re-habilitate himself but...
Haven't we seen this before on Lifetime?: Sure, but what is different about the Haynes film (and the Sirk movies, too) is the highly stylized veneer of acting, lighting, scoring, costumes and cinematography which keeps the audience at a distance and yet this overripe, hyper-real atmosphere strangely pulls it in at the same time.
In the film, the emotional connections, come mainly from what is not spoken — the dialogue is arch anyway — but rather what is communicated though looks, movement and subtext.
In this stage adaptation, that artifice comes through the songs and underscoring (literally the "melo" of the "drama"). But it only succeeds part way.
The material may be better suited as an opera, where the thematic luridness, interior passions and private angst can really let loose. As it is now, there's several effective numbers in the score by the talented composing team of Scott Frankel and Michael Korie ("Grey Gardens"). "The Only One" is the show's beautiful centerpiece and there is also a lovely atmospheric song ("Autumn in Connecticut") and a few witty ones to lighten the mood ("Interesting," "Once a Week").
But the show never bursts forth satisfactorily with the inner lives of the husband (Frank's fractured, dissonant numbers don't allow allow for his own longing) or Raymond, the African-American gardener (Brandon Victor Dixon) whom Cathy develops a close relationship with as she deals with her tenuous marriage. Even Cathy's songs are more bittersweet than fulsome.
Script by Richard Greenberg ("Take Me Out," "Three Days of Rain") follows too faithfully Haynes' screenplay scene by scene relying on the songs to stand in for the film's Technicolor richness. A scene with Cathy and her young daughter hint at taking the material beyond the film, but it is brief and stands alone from the rest of the script.
Allen Moyer's sets nicely suggest the compartmentalized world of "little boxes", not unlike a Mondrian painting, that can also feel imprisoning. (It's apt that Cathy and Raymond prefer the more free-spirited work of Miro in their scene in the art gallery.)
The emotional tone of sincerity mixed with propriety is well represented on stage in Michael Greif's direction as he present this next-to-next-to-normal world where children are ignored, where gossip rules, and where bigotry and sexuality is simmering under the surface.
O'Hara, "a marvel of strength and style," as a fawning local columnist describes Cathy, looks radiant in Catherine Zuber's sleek, stiff outfits, sings like a dream and subtly shifts her character from Stepford Wife to nearly-new woman. Pasquale and Dixon are still finding their centers but they haven't been given enough in script or song yet to fully express their yearnings.
The ensemble is top-rate with Nancy Anderson especially fine as Cathy's best friend, Eleanor (played in the film by Patricia Clarkson). Her poignant "Cathy, I'm Your Friend" is one of the show's highlights.
But there's time for this "preview production" (oh, you mean "out-of- town tryouts?") to be further developed before it moves to off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizon in the spring.
Who will like it?: Fans of the film, of O'Hara (count me in) and of mid-century styles.
Who won't?: Hartfordites might not been keen on having their community portrayed as racist — even if is set in the '50s. But it really could be any conservative, class-conscious enclave of the time.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: It's far from perfect but new plummy musical of non-conformity has potential if it is allowed to ripen.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: There may finally be a great song about Connecticut. The opening number is the scene-setter "Autumn in Connecticut" and the department of tourism should take note.
The basics: The show runs through July 29. Running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission. Information at 413-597-3400 and http://www.wtfestival.org.
Read Frank's blog on theater, the arts and entertainment at http://www.courant.com/curtain. Catch him talking about theater on most Fridays at FOX/CT's Morning Show during the 9 o'clock hour. And be the first to know by following Frank on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/ShowRizCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times