Chicago Theatre Review
Love and Hate in Suburbia
Far From Heaven – Porchlight Music Theatre
A young housewife and mother from an affluent suburb seems to have the ideal life in 1957 Connecticut. As Autumn leaves begin to change and fall, they seem a metaphor for Cathy Whitaker’s life. News comes that her husband, Frank Whitaker, has been arrested for loitering, but it’s only the beginning of a series of tragic events that loom on the horizon. Balancing a myriad of social obligations, as befitting her prosperity, along with her duties as a loving wife and mother, Cathy suddenly must contend with an unravelling marriage that’s turned into a lie and the gossip that centers around her friendship with Raymond, her African American gardener. Events escalate and soon lives are changed for everyone.
Closely adapted from the 2002 film of the same name, this piece resides in the same musical world as “The Light in the Piazza” and “Grey Gardens.” In fact, composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, who musically fashioned this musical in much the same through-sung style, are the Tony-nominated team responsible for “Grey Gardens,” as well as a handful of other shows. Directed by Michael Greif, the musical had its premiere three years ago at New York’s Playwrights Horizon. It starred Tony Award-winning actress Kelli O’Hara and the Lyric Opera’s Billy Bigelow, Steven Pasquale. In Rob Lindley’s stylish Chicago production at Porchlight Music Theatre, the luminous Summer Naomi Smart and Brandon Springman play Cathy and Frank Whitaker, with the always impressive Evan Tyrone Martin as Raymond.
This musical belongs primarily to Cathy Whitaker, and in the lovely hands of Summer Naomi Smart it soars. Every moment in which this stunning actress, with the angelic voice, graces the stage are pure magic. Ms. Smart embodies this character with beauty, style, grace and elegance. One of Chicago’s favorite musical actresses, Ms. Smart gives every note and every word so much gravity and allure. Handsome Brandon Springman, another of Chicago’s finest leading men, is astounding as Frank Whitaker. His brooding good looks are matched by his exquisite, resonant baritone that lifts to the rafters. Evan Tyrone Martin, who has impressed in leading roles all over Chicago, is magnificent as Raymond. Radiating a quiet intensity and a fear for the future, this handsome young actor mirrors the racial unrest that continually rears its ugly head in America. Along with Ms. Smart and Mr. Springman, Mr. Martin creates strong, memorable characters that will haunt you long after the final notes have been sung.
Rob Lindley, who seems to have a way with period musicals, smoothly guides this challenging production to success. His staging is deceptively simple, often populating the stage with his talented ensemble members, strolling everywhere and frozen in time all over Grant Sabin’s pastel, two-level set. Sometimes a large, portable front door gable blocks the sight lights, and William Kirkham’s lighting design often sends illumination and shadows onto the audience walls, but the whole look of the production is simple, elegant and very 1950’s. Bill Morey’s costumes are period perfect and tailored appropriately for each character, and Chuck Larkin’s musical direction, especially his sumptuous-sounding six-piece backstage orchestra, is perfection.
For a relatively new musical that dares to tackle controversial issues like race relations, sexual identity, marriage infidelity and other moral issues, this offering by Porchlight Music Theatre continues their upward spiral toward excellence. Although the piece comes off at times like a soap opera, with an emphasis on “opera,” there are important issues at play here. It’s a look at America’s morals during the Golden Age of Eisenhower. Featuring an array of astounding musical talent this show is actualy closer to heaven than its title proclaims.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented February 5-March 13 by Porchlight Music Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the box office, by calling773-327-5252 or by going to www.porchlightmusictheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com