NEW YORK (AP) -- Richard Greenberg's new musical, "Far From Heaven" is actually pretty close to heavenly. Tightly staged by Michael Greif at Playwrights Horizons, it's smart, sophisticated and a perfect vehicle for Kelli O'Hara's soaring voice and endearing stage presence.
Based on the 2002 movie written and directed by Todd Haynes, the transporting, potent show has an elegant diversity of music by Scott Frankel. Thoughtful lyrics by Michael Korie sensitively express the characters' turbulent inner emotions, and the score is beautifully performed by the entire cast. It opened Sunday.
Greif's depiction of a superficially perfect suburban American family coming apart in 1957 hums with undercurrents of secrecy, prejudice and sexism. A dark aura of repressed sensuality alternates with scenes of suburban placidity. Furtive pick-up scenes or moody vignettes about racial unease and prejudice give way to hopeful domestic tableaus.
Greif and his design team have created a fluid, visually compelling production, enhanced by Catherine Zuber's gorgeous costumes. Interspersing songs with crisp dialogue that is often sung-through, Greenberg and Greif accurately depict the artificial tenor of the times. The worlds of blacks and whites were quite separate in 1950s America, and it was difficult to be a homosexual when that subject was not even discussed.
A luminous O'Hara leads the picture-perfect, lilting opening number, "Autumn in Connecticut," as housewife Cathy Whitaker happily sings about her wonderful life and the beauty all around her. In subtle contrast, her African-American housekeeper/nanny, Sybil (a skillful performance by Quincy Tyler Bernstine) trudges back and forth across the stage as she performs her job.
Stephen Pasquale is perfectly cast as Cathy's husband Frank, a handsome, privileged, white-collar executive who's secretly homosexual and miserable. While Cathy tries lovingly to cope with his drinking problem and then his "illness" after she discovers his secret, Pasquale blazes with hidden anguish, until he bursts out in Frank's passionate confession, "I Never Knew," about the wonders of being truly in love for the first time.
Trouble deepens when Cathy begins an innocent friendship with her new African-American gardener, Raymond, (a touching, restrained performance by Isaiah Johnson). With quiet dignity, Johnson appears both respectful and masterful, especially when Raymond is around white people who act like he's invisible. Johnson and O'Hara share several lovely duets, their voices warmly combining although their bodies may not whenever they sing their rueful theme song, "The Only One."
O'Hara subtly conveys Cathy's increasing inner turmoil as she learns that her so-called friends are all too ready to spread nasty gossip about her. O'Hara's performance is replete with delicate expressions and perfectly-timed gestures, as Cathy firmly tries to maintain a plucky, cheerful demeanor. Her homey scenes with her children (lively portrayals by Jake Lucas and Julianna Rigoglioso) lend an air of normalcy to her increasingly discordant life.
The orchestra, led by musical director Lawrence Yurman, creates a rich sound. Quiet, introspective numbers are mixed with fizzy, funny ones, like "Marital Bliss" a cocktail-fueled discussion by women about how often they have sex. A would-be romantic vacation in Miami features a wonderful, Latin-tinged nightclub dance number, as closeted gay men exchange longing glances during the song, "Wandering Eyes"
It's a little surprising who defies conformity and who broken-heartedly retreats from possible happiness. Inevitably, Cathy recaps everything she's might lose if she divorces Frank, when her "vows to love and honor and obey/are swept away" in the poignant "Tuesdays, Thursdays." In the bittersweet ballad "A Picture In Your Mind" reluctantly parting lovers sing, "though I may be far away/we'll never say goodbye."
Bright rear projections and atmospheric lighting supplement Allen Moyer's versatile rolling scaffolding, with stairs and platforms that smartly denote many locations. Difficult emotional journeys are beautifully rendered in "Far From Heaven," and the musical is profoundly effective.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.