By Barry Reszel
It’s easy much of the time journeying the path of human experience to feel far from heaven.
Certainly, ordinariness and complacency are typical Chicagoland theatre patrons’ “first world” manifestations of this estrangement from the divine. Yet each person’s thoughts and roles regarding society’s big ticket problems—poverty and homelessness, mental and physical illness, bullying and violence, hunger, proselytizing, war, the ascendance of Donald Trump‘s candidacy to relevancy… —help to shake faith.
They keep homecoming with God, YHWH, Allah or The Universe feeling quite distant indeed, if not all together improbable.
So are patrons to thank or curse Porchlight Music Theatre for its current run of the hauntingly depressing, if semi-critically acclaimed, Far From Heaven for evoking such thoughts of detachment?
Perhaps a bit of both.
The Rob Lindley-directed production is a powerful story centering on the themes of marriage, friendship, romance, betrayal, homosexuality and racial intolerance. Set in 1957 suburban Connecticut, Cathy Whitaker (Summer Naomi Smart) seems to be the picture-perfect wife to popular and handsome executive Frank (Brandon Springman) and a doting mother. But beneath the Stepford-esque facade, secret longings, forbidden desires and a new friendship with her gardener (Evan Tyrone Martin) cause Cathy’s world to unravel.
This 2013 musical Far From Heaven, based on Todd Haynes‘ 2002 motion picture of the same name, features a mostly harsh, melancholy songbook from Tony-nominated songwriters Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (Grey Gardens and Finding Neverland) and a book by Tony-winner Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out and Three Days of Rain) that’s full of thoughtful anguish.
The Porchlight production is music directed by Chuck Larkin with his lovely orchestra surrounding the house and choreographed by William Carlos Angulo. It takes place in one of Stage 773’s intimate spaces featuring Grant Saban‘s elaborately functional, if sometimes unpolished and cumbersome, set depicting 1950s upscale Hartford. That’s complemented by William Morey‘s beautiful, no-expenses-spared period costumes.
High quality theatrical and vocal performances from Smart, Springman and Martin are certainly the onstage take-aways here. The lovely Jeff Award-winning leading lady is at the pinnacle of Chicagoland musical theatre talent, and Smart’s depiction of Cathy is fluid, effortless and authentic throughout her emotional roller coaster ride. Springman as her husband Frank is similarly convincing, while Martin bolsters his already impressive resume with a truly standout performance.
The 20ish person ensemble is gifted, if a bit cramped for the space, with Bri Sudia‘s performance as Cathy’s best friend Eleanor particularly memorable. Musical highlights center around the three leads, all of whom have angelic voices, and include “Sun and Shade,” “The Only One,” “I Never Knew,” “A Picture in Your Mind” and “Heaven Knows.”
It’s certainly fair to call Far From Heaven evocatively sorrowful musical theatre. Lacking the obvious redemption found in most musicals, this story, more akin to that of a piece of modern art by, say, Joan Miró, merely offers subtly embedded hints for thoughtful patrons to unpeel and discover, some as they watch and others that sneak into the mind days after seeing this affective production.
When they do, perhaps those hints lead to realization, maybe even appreciation, of how society has evolved in the past 59 years with some of its big ticket items—women’s rights, race relations, homosexual acceptance….
Fast enough? No.
Far enough? No.
But evolution? Progress? Growth? Undeniably, yes.
And that makes heaven feel just a little bit closer.
Porchlight Music Theatre presents “Far From Heaven” through March 13 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. Performance times are Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 pm and 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, with March 3’s performance changing to 1:30 pm. More information and tickets are available by calling (773) 327-5252 or online here.