Heavenly Jennifer Ellis Shines

Far From Heaven

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s Far From Heaven made the My Theatre (Boston) Must See list for many reasons, but the best reason was the all-star cast. Somehow, SpeakEasy, under the steady leadership of Director Scott Edmiston, assembled some of the best talent in Boston for this hopelessly-flawed musical. The production is not flawed, but it’s hard to see heaven when you’re looking at the imperfect world in Hartford, Connecticut in 1957. Thankfully, many of the actors shine through the darkness, but few as brightly and brilliantly as Jennifer Ellis as Cathy Whitaker.

In Hartford, Cathy Whitaker (Jennifer Ellis) has a charmed life as a 1950s housewife to the handsome and successful businessman Frank Whitaker (Jared Troilo). However, under the façade of an idyllic marriage, Frank and Cathy face unspeakable marital woes, secrets that their neighbors, particularly the conniving Mona Lauder (Ellen Peterson), are all too willing to find and reveal. And amidst this turmoil, Cathy finds solace and potential salvation with the equally handsome gardener Raymond Deagan (Maurice Emmanuel Parent). The only problem: He’s an African-American man in the 1950s, and Hartford is not the progressive town that it (presumably) is today.

With a solid playwright like Richard Greenberg, I expected more from this musical’s book. Perhaps, the 2002 Todd Haynes film limits the musical, and what works on film rarely translates to stage (I brainstormed countless options for good film to stage adaptations, and I could barely count a handful).   One of my biggest problems with the musical is its insistence that its discussion of complex contemporary issues (namely, race, gender roles, and sexual orientation) is somehow profound or noteworthy. I would never speculate that we are done discussing any of these topics, but Far From Heaven (especially when its based on a 2002 film and sensibilities) does little to further our perspective or exploration of these topics. I might be shooting myself in the foot with this comment, but not all theatre needs to be this profound exploration of contemporary issues. If you ignore that it’s a modern musical, you can instead enjoy Far From Heaven as a glimpse of how far we’ve come, and, maybe (really, just maybe), how far we have to go.

So, we’re left with a lackluster book and story (thanks, Greenberg), but, in the hands of creator Scott Edmiston, anything is possible. His gorgeous stage pictures (with a crisp and flawless set by Eric Levenson and some of the best lighting design this season by Karen Perlow) make this musical a beautiful heaven to behold. Picture frames hang invitingly and capture moments as still-shots of history and story. Picture-perfect furniture adorn the set in each scene, drawing our focus, first, to its beauty and, second, to what lies beneath the couch, or behind the office door. The scenes flow effortlessly from one to another, keeping the pacing light, though never frantic enough to make you believe or even think that Cathy might be losing control on her perfect world. Award-worthy costumes, designed by Costume Designer Charles Schoonmaker, fit snuggly on each actor, accenting their personalities and bodies, as if they hung in each of their closets, carefully chosen for each occasion (Ellis’ Cathy seems to have a new costume for each of the numerous scenes and I never saw a repeat from this vast collection of style).

And there’s our second problem. The musical never has the off-beat sensibilities for which Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) are famous (think Grey Gardens). The songs are beautifully sung by the rising star Jennifer Ellis, especially the opening “Autumn in Connecticut” (what range, what control), and duets between Troilo and Ellis as Frank and Cathy, such as “Secrets” and “I Never Knew.” But the musical also has a lot of filler songs, or songs that strive for the stars and land somewhere else, such as “Mrs. Magnatech,” the many reprises of “Table Talk,” and both “Interesting” and “Miro” in the art gallery. The score hinders the production, despite the impressive vocal talents among the cast. The ensemble is strong, but never has a chance to soar in their songs, with the exception of the opening “Autumn in Connecticut” and the charming Darren Bunch’s Band Crooner’s “Wandering Eyes.”

The standout star is Jennifer Ellis, who is breathtaking beautiful and chilling in this role. She plays a woman who yearns to understand herself and her world a bit better, and she is held back by society and its expectations. The struggle is manifested in Ellis’ face, which she portrays wonderfully whether in song or dialogue. Her effortless chemistry with the rest of the cast makes her rise above the rest. One of Ellis’ best on-stage relationships is with her best friend, Eleanor Fine, played by the constantly surprising Aimee Doherty. In just one year, I have seen Doherty tackle a rich socialite, a conniving former beauty queen, a Witch with some serious rap moves, and a sincere best friend with a dark domestic secret. Doherty is flawless, growing as an accomplished performer on whom a theatre company can rely for any of their theatrical needs. (Side Note: If Side Show wasn’t coming to Broadway, I would love—nay, pay—to see Doherty and Ellis tackle Daisy and Violet in the Greater Boston area). Let’s make sure that these two actresses have more opportunities to play opposite each other.

Ellis does a wonderful job of bringing out the best in the other actors. In “Once Upon a Time,” Ellis and young Audree Hedequist (who plays Janice Whitaker, Cathy’s daughter) sing a gorgeous song together which highlights both of their voices perfectly, but, moreover, cements a touching mother-daughter relationship. In a musical where there is so much fighting the status quo, these familial relationships become more important than ever. Troilo and Ellis are sparkling together, despite their frustrated marriage; in fact, they might have too much sexual chemistry. But, the problem lies with Maurice Emmanuel Parent’s Raymond. He feels stifled by his uninspiring dialogue; he never rises above the stifled speech, and he remains a caricature in this emotional and romantic musical. It was difficult, nay, almost impossible to buy into Parent’s relationship with Ellis, despite the noble efforts of Edmiston to orchestrate some sexy stage moments. Not even Parent’s voice could save him, and many of Raymond’s songs sounded like one-note, a disconnected hymn to a distant heaven. Without this important, no, essential, chemistry, the musical fell flat in many scenes, and left me wondering whether it wasn’t better to end up with Troilo’s Frank, faults and all.

Edmiston makes a strong attempt at salvaging this musical for the contemporary Boston crowd. People may draw comparisons to The Huntington’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which is set almost a decade later, but feels like a century or world apart. Edmiston’s beautiful stage pictures and moments are not wasted, but this is not the dynamic piece of theatre that it should be with talents like Ellis, Doherty, and Troilo singing a heavenly choir. The fault lies in the source, not the production, but I can’t help wishing that SpeakEasy, known for its Boston premiere musicals, had chosen a stronger piece to showcase these talents. Regardless, with a shining star like Ellis, we can hope for future productions to touch this bit of heaven for years to come. 

The Speakeasy Stage Company production of the new musical Far From Heaven, Directed by Scott Edmiston, is playing now through October 11, 2014 at the Calderwood Pavilion in the Boston Center for the Arts: http://www.speakeasystage.com.

As originally published on My Entertainment World.