21 May 2013

‘Far from Heaven’ and ‘High Fidelity’

Kelli O’Hara in Far from Heaven

Fresh off the plane from my Fort Worth Opera adventure, I was profoundly gratified, on a very personal and frankly egocentric level, that a few friends went all-out to welcome me home with a pair of musical-theatrical entertainments. “Don’t we hate it when our friends become successful?” Morrissey warbled, and yet in the cases of Amanda Green and Scott Frankel, I’ve got to cheer. What they’re doing in the theater is nothing short of miraculous.

Scott has written the score to Far from Heaven, Richard Greenberg’s adaptation (with lyrics by Michael Korie) of the film from 2002, written and directed by Todd Haynes and produced by Christine Vachon, two more old friends of mine.* Inspired by the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk, the story concerns a Connecticut housewife whose immaculate existence is upended by her husband’s struggle with his closeted homosexuality and by her growing friendship with a black man. Julianne Moore played Cathy in the movie (and earned an Oscar nomination while she was at it); Kelli O’Hara takes the role here.

For this audience, perhaps the first of the many pleasures of Far from Heaven is the loving care Scott has given to crafting an ideal vehicle for Kelli O’Hara’s voice. Though she’s primarily a Broadway baby now, she was classically trained and studied with Florence Birdwell at Oklahoma City University, where she sang a good deal of Mozart. To this day O’Hara boasts a purity of tone, remarkable range, and a beautiful sense of line. She can spin out long phrases like nobody’s business — and Scott has written music to show off exactly these qualities, while calling on dramatically darker colors than O’Hara has needed to use in shows like South Pacific and The Pajama Game.**

Listening to her in Far from Heaven, I could almost sense the creative teamwork as composer and singer explored possibilities and arrived at solutions that worked best as theater — and as a showcase for a gorgeous instrument. “You can do this? So let’s try this!” The results are thrilling, and great chunks of show are through-composed, song flowing seamlessly into song as Scott liberates his gifts.

Coming undone: Steven Pasquale and Kelli O’Hara.

Much of the score evokes the romantic sweep of the Sirk melodramas (as did Elmer Bernstein’s score for Todd Haynes’ movie), but without being strictly imitative: we are very much in the hands of the man who wrote “Another Winter in a Summer Town” for Grey Gardens. But that’s only one of the voices Scott deploys here, and it was most especially when Cathy’s husband, Frank (Steven Pasquale) was introduced in a violent, period-perfect jazz number, that I realized how fully the music reflects the characters: here is a man who is only barely controlling the passion he’s trying so hard to suppress altogether.

Fans of Grey Gardens will miss the wit that Korie displayed in “Revolutionary Costume,” but really it would be out of place here. These are characters possessed by poetic yearnings — but largely deprived of the language to express their desires. The sheer banality of their existence, against which they’re all colliding, has also informed their speech, and the dramatic tension of the piece comes from their struggles to say what they feel.*** The poetry comes in the music — that which is beyond words.

Like Michael Greif’s swiftly moving staging, Greenberg’s book follows the movie closely — as I recall it, without having seen it in full since its initial release — and it provides for zesty turns from Nancy Anderson as Eleanor, Cathy’s best friend; and from the mighty Alma Cuervo, as a vicious local gossip. Throughout the show, the focus seems squarely trained on Cathy (O’Hara has approximately 600 costume changes, all exquisite), but as the men in her life, Pasquale and Isaiah Johnson manage to shine brightly. Johnson is particularly impressive in his subtlety, a very difficult feat, but one that is exactly right for a man who has determined all his life not to cause trouble.

I was living in France in 2006, when High Fidelity ran its brief course on Broadway, but I made up for this, or tried to, by blasting the original cast album across the French countryside. An adaptation of Stephen Frears’ film (which in turn was an adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel), the show features a book by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Tom Kitt.

Kitt’s songs reveal more character and flavor than the usual generic stuff that passes for rock on Broadway nowadays, and he gets extra mileage out of hilarious parodies of specific musicians, most notably Bruce Springsteen, whose cameo appearance echoes the role of Humphrey Bogart in Play It Again, Sam. This all makes perfect sense for a show about a guy who owns “The Last Real Record Store on Earth.”

Jenn Colella in the original Broadway production.
It is impossible to say how much I love this woman.

From my perspective, the show’s most important element, however, was the song lyrics by Amanda Green, overflowing with a raw urgency that I found startling — and wonderful. When I first heard the recording, I kept thinking, “But she’s such a nice girl!” And then gradually I realized that, yes, Amanda is a nice girl — by choice, because as these lyrics demonstrate, she could easily kick my or anyone else’s ass.

Amanda is on a roll this season, with two Tony-nominated shows, Bring It On and Hands on a Hardbody, on Broadway; for the latter show, Amanda herself earned a Tony nomination, with Trey Anastasio, for Best Original Score. In short, this is the perfect time to revisit her first Broadway show.

Led by Kitt at the piano and an ensemble of top-notch musicians, the concert at 54 Below featured songs from the show, without more than a few lines from the book and only discreet staging (by Leigh Silverman), so that it’s no easier to assess the show as a theater piece than it is when you’re sitting at home (in France or anywhere else) and listening to the recording. What the concert did reveal was that the runaway energy of these songs is ramped up to breathtaking levels when they’re performed live.

Will Chase and my idol, Jenn Colella, reprised their roles from the original production, along with such Green-piece veterans as Taylor Louderman, Ryann Redmond, and Janet Krupin from Bring It On, and Allison Case and Jon Rua from Hands on a Hardbody. Ana Gasteyer and Adam Chanler-Berat lent their strengths, Mario Cantone proved a formidable Springsteen, and I really ought to know more about everybody else who sang. However, seated waaay in the corner at stage left, I discovered that there are in fact circumstances in which 54 Below does not boast perfect sightlines.

This was especially disappointing when it came to Jenn Colella’s first big song, “Number 5 with a Bullet.” She is, if anything, the ideal interpreter of Amanda’s work, the conduit through which that electricity flows unstoppably, and while I’d admired her in other things, it was when I first heard her perform Amanda’s songs that I fell head over heels for her. My view of her in “Number 5” was limited in fact to her heels, dancing up a storm, but blessedly unobscured when it came time for “Ready to Settle,” a duet with none other than Amanda herself, in glorious voice.

By now New York has had several opportunities to get to know Amanda and to realize that High Fidelity was a fluke only in the brevity of its run on Broadway. The strengths of wit and feeling that she unveiled in this show have held up, and whether with music or with lyrics, she’s still wielding a fierce sharp knife, paring away layers to reach the core of truth. High Fidelity may have failed to find its audience the first time out, but this concert made clear that material this good must be heard again.

It took both Amanda and Scott a little time to find their respective paths, and yet they’re both marching confidently forward now. And that is a joyful thing to witness. Work this good doesn’t shut me down or make me feel small or resentful: it encourages me to dare to do my best work, too. And so, with respect to the angsty Englishman Morrissey, I’d like to revise his lyric: Don’t we love it when our friends become our muses?

Amanda and Jenn share the stage at Birdland.
According to the transitive theory of inspiration,
Jenn is also my muse.

*NOTE: I say all of this up front, in the interest of full disclosure, but it should be clear to all at this point that I don’t turn off my critical faculties just because I know the people involved.

**I interviewed O’Hara for a story that ultimately did not appear in Opera News, while she was appearing in South Pacific. She’s a delight, just as one would hope. Another impressive credit on her résumé, The Light in the Piazza, is surely closer, in terms of vocal demands, to Far from Heaven, Piazza was written by Scott’s fellow Yale alumnus Adam Guettel, grandson of Richard Rodgers, composer of — yes — South Pacific. Also, Michael Greif’s partner is Jonathan Fried, who was in theater at Brown just a class or two before me, and it should be noted further that Dennis Quaid, who played Frank in the movie, also co-stars in the film Postcards from the Edge, in which the very young Scott Frankel makes a memorable appearance. Kevin Bacon ain’t got nothin’ on these folks.

***Onstage as in life, the Bouviers may have lost their minds, but they retained an extraordinary richness of speech. “STAUNCH!”

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