The beauty of Todd Haynes’ 2002 movie Far From Heaven, a Douglas Sirk-inspired melodrama about a 1950s Connecticut housewife whose suburban idyll is poisoned by racism and adultery, was the way that it teased tragedy out from under a rigidly placid surface. Its heroine, Cathy Whitaker (played in the film by Julianne Moore), is a model of the all-American housewife until she catches her husband in a homosexual affair and then strikes up a gossip-provoking relationship with her black gardener. It’s a lurid premise that veers thrillingly close to camp — the movie could easily have turned into a cruel Donna Reed parody if it wasn’t for Moore, who played her role with white-knuckle-tight restraint as a perfect counterpoint to the tawdry story.
The result was a subtle, deft balancing act between mannerism and emotion — and for those reasons, not an obvious candidate for a musical adaptation. Songs, especially the ones in musical theater, soar when they’re filled with big capital-F feelings, not bottled-up desires. There’s no razzle-dazzle in repression.
And yet, here it is at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons (through July 7): a stage musical of Far From Heaven, a big, ballad-stuffed drama that takes the story of Haynes’ movie at face value. All the sneaky irony and bitterness of the movie are trimmed away to make space for sweeping melodies and broad-strokes heartbreak — exactly the kind of pat emotionality that the original film mocked in the first place. Haynes’ movie showed how hate and homophobia could curdle the American dream; the musical takes those curds and turns them into pure, theatrical cheese.
The fault doesn’t lie with the performers. Kelli O’Hara makes a vivid and poignant Cathy, and both Steven Pasquale (as her cheating, homosexual husband) and Isaiah Johnson (as the gardener she falls for) have Broadway-big talents that are thrilling to watch in the relative intimacy of the Playwrights Horizon’ Main Stage theater. Nor is the music a disaster: Scott Frankel’s score (with lyrics by Michael Korie) is full of pleasant, meandering melodies and measured wordplay. But in a great musical, the mixture of song and story creates alchemical fireworks. In a good one, the two elevate each other. In Far From Heaven, they feel as uneasily integrated as the fractured black, white, gay, and straight communities of 1950s Hartford, Conn. — struggling just to coexist. C+