Thursday, September 25, 2014

SpeakEasy Stage Company Presents "Far From Heaven" - A Powerful Production of a Mediocre Musical

It turns out that you can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear!  Let me begin by saying that there are enough good things about the current SpeakEasy Stage Company production of the new musical "Far From Heaven" to warrant buying a ticket and enjoying an entertaining evening of theater.  The acting and singing are excellent, and the set and costumes are eye-catching.  The problem lies with the very pedestrian book by Richard Greenberg, the sophomoric and simplistic lyrics by Michael Korie and the soporific music by Scott Frankel.  Using some theatrical alchemy, Director Scott Edmiston has managed to take the leaden source material and transform it into a golden production that delights the eye and ear at several key moments.

The talented and enthusiastic cast is very well served by the Musical Direction of Steven Bergman, Choreography of David Connolly, the simple and elegant Scenic Design of Eric Levenson and the stunning Costume Design of Charles Schoonmaker.  Lighting by Karen Perlow and Sound by Noah Thomas are also excellent.

The thin plot revolves around the plastic and apparently happy lives of the junior executive class of Hartford, CT's young and ambitious insurance bosses and their fashionable and often vacuous Stepford - I mean Hartford - wives.  The rub lies when the Ken and Barbie dolls of the social set, Frank and Cathy Whitaker, have secrets that will eventually be revealed and will cause their standing in the community to unravel along with their marriage.  In short, Frank is a closeted gay man who does not know how to deal with his perverse proclivity in an era when psychotherapy and shock treatments were being used to "fix" men cursed with this unfortunate bent.  Cathy, in a loveless marriage, confides in the Negro gardener, Raymond Deagan.  A deep friendship develops, the town is scandalized and all hell breaks loose.

Jared Troilo as Frank Whitaker
Jennifer Ellis as Cathy Whitaker
Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
Let's talk about the cast members whose performances call for special recognition.

Jennifer Ellis as the complex and struggling Cathy Whitaker is masterful in portraying a wide range of emotions.  Her voice soars in the opening musical number, "Autumn in Connecticut," as she sings of the promises that the season offers.  The Autumn Promises soon give way to a Winter of Discontent as her world begins to crumble piece by piece.  Ms. Ellis wonderfully portrays the changing emotions that Cathy struggles to hide - from herself, from Frank, from her children, from her friend Eleanor and from the gossip mongers of Hartford.  Her smile that radiates with the message that all is right with the world, gradually loses its luster, and becomes almost a grimace as Cathy figuratively whistles past the graveyard of her marriage and her dreams of a perfect life.  This is a stunningly effective and griping performance.

Jared Troilo plays the closeted and conflicted Frank.  As was the case when he recently played Stone in "City of Angels," his voice soars in the songs "Secrets" and "If I Hadn't Been."  The palpable coolness and lack of chemistry between Cathy and Frank is no surprise, given the fact that Frank's subterranean passions lie in other directions than his wife.

Amy Doherty turns in her usual steady and impressive performance as Cathy's best friend, Eleanor. Ms. Doherty's acting chops really shine in the scene in which Cathy reveals to Eleanor that she has been confiding in the Negro gardener, Raymond.  Eleanor's changed body language, pursed lips and overall discomfort and cold as ice demeanor reveal that Cathy has lost a friend, despite Eleanor's previous protestations that "You can tell me absolutely anything."

Maurice Emmanuel Parent portrays the widowed gardener, Raymond Deagan.  Raymond and Cathy sing a duet entitled "Sun and Shade" which highlights the differences in their two worlds.    While this role does not showcase Mr. Parent's protean talents as fully as did his portrayal of Mister in "The Color Purple," he does a good job in portraying a character who figures out long before Cathy does that the climate of the world of 1957 Hartford will not allow a romance - or even a platonic friendship - to blossom between them.

Kerry A. Dowling is memorable as Mrs. Leacock, the gossip columnist you love to hate.

Tyler Lenhart plays the role of Chase Decker, Frank's young love interest.  Although he has few lines, he speaks volumes with his posture and his eyes, especially in the Latin number "Wandering Eyes," sung in Desi Arnaz crooner style by Darren Bunch.

Will McGarrahan plays multiple roles, but the two that stand out are the role of Frank's German psychiatrist and the smarmy art critic who visits the art gallery in Hartford where some of the play's action is framed.

Jennifer Ellis as Cathy WhitakerMaurice Emmanuel Parent as Raymond Deagan
Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
"From the creators of the musical Grey Gardens and Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out) comes a lush musical adaptation of Todd Haynes’ acclaimed romantic melodrama of private longings and social taboos. A 1950s Connecticut housewife’s perfect life is shattered when she discovers her husband’s shocking secret and then seeks comfort in a forbidden relationship that dramatically alters her view of herself and the world."


Darren Bunch… Gus / Band Crooner / Ensemble
Aimee Doherty*… Eleanor Fine
Kerry A. Dowling*… Mrs. Leacock / Doris Decker / Ensemble
Jennifer Ellis*… Cathy Whitaker
Audree Hedequist… Janice Whitaker
Tyler Lenhart… Chase Decker / Ensemble
Michael Levesque… Dick Dawson / Ensemble
Sophia Mack… Sarah Deagan
Carla Martinez… Esther / Ensemble
Will McGarrahan*… Dr. Bowman / Morris Farnsworth / Ensemble
Jennifer Mischley… Doreen Dawson / Sheila Decker / Ensemble
Terrence O’Malley*… Stan Fine / Ensemble
Maurice Parent*… Raymond Deagan
Ellen Peterson… Mona Lauder / Ensemble
Carolyn Saxon*… Sybil
Josh Sussman… David Whitaker
Rachel Gianna Tassio… Nancy / Connie / Ensemble
Jared Troilo*… Frank Whitaker
"Far From Heaven" will run through October 11.

SpeakEasy Stage Website

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