Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How SpeakEasy wound up so far from musical heaven

On the town, but in the closet in Far from Heaven.  Production photos: Craig Bailey.

I've held my peace about SpeakEasy's current production of Far from Heaven, the musical based on Todd Haynes' celebrated film of the same name, probably because I didn't feel there was much point in piling on. Most local reviews of the show were clearly dissatisfied - but none offered an accurate analysis of what was wrong with it. So in the end I decided I would throw my hat in the ring at the last minute, if only to contribute a little "criticism" to all that "reviewing."

Now I didn't read everyone of course, but most of our local aestheticians seemed to feel that the basic problem with Far from Heaven lay in the material itself, while the production itself was strong - which, alas, wasn't quite right. There were many talented people involved in SpeakEasy's season opener, it's true; but still, the production they crafted was actually almost as weak as the musical itself. Or perhaps not "weak" so much as wrong-headed.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still #92
But let me explain.  Director Todd Haynes, whose homage to Douglas Sirk became an art-house hit in 2002, majored in semiotics in his school days, and his films have always been awash in self-consciously avant concerns. Identity as a social construct looms largest among these (one early effort was "acted" by dolls), so it was no surprise that Far from Heaven traded in the tropes of appropriation pioneered by artists like Cindy Sherman, who became famous by "casting" herself in so-called "Untitled Film Stills," in which she seemed embedded in a cultural surround borrowed from the Hollywood of previous decades (she's a thriller victim in #92, above left).

Sherman's shots proved weirdly resonant, but Haynes took her game to a whole new level with Heaven, which scrupulously re-constructed the latently-gay artifice of Sirk's celebrated women's pictures: the lush but dusky palette, the stagey sets, the delicate, summer-stock dialogue - Haynes nailed every detail, but secreted within Sirk's florid skin his own out-and-proud politics. Thus homophobia and racism - topics Sirk could only flirt with in flicks like Imitation of Life - burst out of the closet in Far from Heaven.

The gay man plays it straight: Rock Hudson pledges his love to Jane Wyman in All that Heaven Allows.

But to no avail; importantly, Haynes didn't let any political heat overcome his idol's famous poise; he kept his own concerns encased in the master's constraining style.  Thus no one is liberated in Far from Heaven, and questions linger as to whether its subdued heroine, who alone awakens to the prejudiced limits of her cosseted world, can even "exist" outside the assumptions of her era. The film's atmosphere is one of poignantly alienated restraint - a redoubling, really, of Sirk's original effect.

But musicals rarely work in terms of poignant restraint, and the adaptors of Heaven seem to have never gotten the memo that they were, in the end, charting the alienation (rather than the radicalization) of their heroine, Cathy Whittaker (Jennifer Ellis), who risks the shunning of her Mad Men social set when she withdraws from her closeted gay husband (Jared Troilo) and begins to edge in affection toward her African-American gardener (Maurice Parent).

Thus book writer Richard Greenberg (who really should have known better), lyricist Michael Korie, and composer Scott Frankel essentially pitch the show as a sweetly arch tale of belated sexual and racial education. And to be fair, that's often only a few inches away from the proper tone. But those inches prove fatal; without Haynes' haunting sense of dream-state encasement, the whole thing feels labored and over-familiar, and a sense of tedium begins to haunt the proceedings.

Jennifer Ellis.
It doesn't help that Frankel's music is relentlessly mediocre (it's all so-so hooks that the composer feels compelled to "do something" with), and somehow seems to intrude on the drama rather than enhance it (we learn in the program that the music came first - rarely a good sign).  Meanwhile Korie's lyrics - and Greenberg's book - feel like the movie script done up by an impatient producer with a yellow highlighter.

So the show is a challenge, to put it mildly - but then again, SpeakEasy often only digs itself a deeper hole with this production. Conceptually, almost everything is wrong with it. From the top, the designers opt for obvious metaphors (empty frames!) and ditch the twilit color schemes of Sirk for vibrant primaries - which look gorgeous, but undercut the rueful mood. Meanwhile director Scott Edmiston not only miscasts and mis-directs the key role of the gay husband (who must be at least as convincingly rugged as Rock Hudson once seemed) but never seems to realize that this material isn't really about teachable moments. Thus the luminous Jennifer Ellis (at left, whom I would gladly pay to hear read the phone book, much less sing) begins to look a little lost as her arc tilts toward a tragedy that isn't happening. To be fair, the satire is smooth, and the group scenes trot along pretty much as they should; Edmiston is as glossily competent as ever. But ask him about identity as a social construct and I think you'd just get a blank stare.

Still, he does have an eye for talent, and his major find here is newcomer Darren Bunch, who makes the most of the one honest song in the show (which only gets some breathing room because it's pitched as a "song" in quotes). Meanwhile local lights Maurice Parent, Aimee Doherty, and Kerry Dowling all do well, but not quite their best - in fact they're often upstaged by their costumes! For local legend Charles Schoonmaker has gone to town this time, with one eye on Dior's "New Look" and the other on the boldest prints he could find. The results are nothing less than dazzling - perhaps almost distracting.  Not that we really mind - in fact I found myself breathlessly awaiting the leading lady's every entrance, knowing she would return in a gown to die (or kill) for.  Beaming and beautiful, Miss Ellis always looked very close to heaven indeed.

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