WILLIAMSTOWN -- In turning Todd Haynes' much-admired 2002 film "Far From Heaven" into a stage musical, director Michael Greif, playwright Richard Greenberg and songwriters Scott Frankel (music) and Michael Korie (lyrics) have stripped away Haynes' conscious stylistic bow to 1950s filmmaker Douglas Sirk and burrowed beneath the skin of a story set in a culture in which appearance and playing by the rules matter.
Already scheduled for Playwrights Horizon in New York in the spring of 2013, "Far From Heaven" is being presented on the Williamstown Theatre Festival Main Stage as a fully mounted "preview production," which means the material is being tweaked, revised, added to, subtracted from each day of the run, which ends on Sunday.
It is worth the effort, especially given this cast -- headed by the remarkable Kelli O'Hara as Cathy Whitaker, the perfect upper middle-class suburban housewife who lives in an affluent neighborhood in Hartford, Conn., in 1957, where she dutifully raises her two children, keeps house with the help of her black housekeeper, and tends to the domestic needs of her hard-working, successful businessman husband, Frank (a perfectly credible Steven Pasquale).
"Far From Heaven" traces the course Cathy travels as she learns, to her horror and confusion, that her marriage is a sham because of the secret life her husband has been leading throughout their marriage. As she and her husband struggle to hold their marriage together and to reverse the course of Frank's closeted imperatives -- a plot element that dominates the first act -- Cathy faces growing ostracism and outright insults from her friends as a bond develops between Cathy and her black gardener, Raymond (played perfectly by Brandon Victor Dixon as a beautifully, touchingly gentle, decent, honorable, wise, widower and single father; a perceptive man of deep inner strength and an all-too-real understanding of how the world truly operates).
"Far From Heaven" is a virtually sungthrough musical and there are times when one yearns for more stretches of pure dialogue than currently exist in Greenberg's libretto. At the same time, Frankel and Korie know how to use words and music to achieve irony; to move the psyhcology and emotional underpinnings; to get beneath the skin of the various relationships -- mother-daughter; best friend to best friend; employer to an employee who becomes more than just an employee.
Subtext goes a long way in so much of the musical material. As Raymond and Cathy examine a Miro painting at a local art exhibition, for example, it is clear that their discussion of the painting in the song, "Miro," is not simply about a painting. It's about personal awakening through new experience. It's about how we see, not only art but life, the world, the people who inhabit or visit our lives. It's about possibilities.
"Far From Heaven" is at its most poignant and compelling in its scenes between Dixon's Raymond and O'Hara's Cathy, particularly in the final sequence of the first act in an astonishingly haunting song, "The Only One," that begins when Raymond persuades Cathy to accompany him on a business trip into the countryside for his plant shop and ending on the dance floor of a bar and restaurant in Hartford's black neighborhood. The intense delicacy with which this sequence is played and directed will stop your breath.
Everything that follows is anticlimactic. The second act plods and occasionally overindulges -- especially a prolonged scene on the dance floor of a Miami night club -- as Greenberg, Korie, Frankel and Greif move to tie up the story's various strands in ways that are credible and make sense given the times within which their story unfolds.
The most compelling question centers around Cathy and the future this attractive raised-to-be-a-dutiful-housewife-and-mother woman faces in the pre-feminist era of the late 1950s. But that uncertainty is no more than a featherweight suggestion in a concluding image that is the visual equivalent of an unfinished sentence.
"Far From Heaven" is another in a growing list of freshly conceived musicals that have found a welcome, creatively liberating home in Williamstown.