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Review: Porchlight Music Theatre's FAR FROM HEAVEN Presents A Woman's Melodic Journey Towards Self-Discovery In 1950s America

Porchlight Music Theatre's production of FAR FROM HEAVEN marks the musical's Chicago premiere--the show debuted Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons in 2013 and takes the titular 2002 Todd Haynes-directed film as its source material. And while this musical from composer-lyricist team Scott Frankel and Michael Korie was written three years ago, FAR FROM HEAVEN touches on issues of gender, sexuality, and race in 1957 suburban Connecticut that poignantly resonant with the present moment. At the center of the musical is Cathy Whittaker (the superb and stunning Summer Naomi Smart), a 1950s housewife and mother--decked out in Bill Morey's outstanding period-authentic dresses and residing in Grant Sabin's charming set. At the top of the show, she catches her husband, Frank (Brandon Springman) cheating on her--with a man. Stunned by this secret, Cathy is forced to confront the reality of what happens when her life cannot conform to the societal pressures and ideals coming at her from both the media and friends--a matter which is further complicated when she strikes up an unexpected friendship with her black gardener, Raymond Deagan (Evan Tyrone Martin).

Richard Greenberg's lean book works nicely with Frankel and Korie's numerous musical numbers--the show is almost entirely sung-through. The score has a lush, tranquil feel to it, fitting of a show set in the 1950s American suburbs. Korie has crafted some similarly lovely lyrics to accompany it, especially in the show's act one finale--a beautiful duet for Cathy and Raymond. In some instances, however, I hoped for a bit more lyrical complexity--at one point, Korie rhymes "brang" and "clang' in a song the Whittaker children sing on Christmas morning. And while melodious, FAR FROM HEAVEN'S score could stand for some more variation in terms of song pacing--the musical stays firmly in ballad territory.

While FAR FROM HEAVEN has a far-reaching premise, the musical ultimately focuses on Cathy's own identity exploration. And similarly, Summer Naomi Smart carries this production with her performance. Despite the show's title, Smart's singing voice is truly angelic, and she seemingly melts into the many challenging high notes in Frankel's score. While the part is vocally challenging, Smart makes it seem easy. At the same time, Smart's acting is raw and real--we truly feel Cathy's growing pain and desperation as she finds her life falling apart in front of her. Smart owns the stage in each and every moment she appears, which is important considering that she rarely leaves it.

Smart's excellent performance finds good company in this Rob Lindley-directed production. Martin (who appeared this fall in Porchlight's production of Side Show) shines with sincerity as Raymond and has an extremely powerful voice. Any time Smart and Martin duet in this show, it quickly becomes a highlight-as in the compelling song "Miro," in which Cathy and Raymond contemplate a painting at an art show and the various meanings on which they can bestow it. Bri Sudia infuses some humor and warmth into the production as Cathy's best friend Eleanor. Candace C. Edwards has a poignant turn as the Whittaker's housekeeper Sybil, and Peyton Shaffer (at this performance) and Aaron Stone delight as the Whittaker children, Janice and David.

Porchlight's overall lovely production of FAR FROM HEAVEN both entertains and moves, and it comes at a moment when the musical's themes ring out loud and clear for audiences. And Smart's powerful take on Cathy is simply not-to-be-missed--she is divine in every way. Though Cathy feels burdened by the ceaseless pressure to conform to 1950s society, Smart does not let anything get in the way of her expert performance.


Porchlight Music Theatre's FAR FROM HEAVEN runs through March 13 at Stage 773, 1225 West Belmont Avenue. Tickets are $32-$48 and can be purchased online at PorchlightMusicTheatre.org or by phone at 73.327.5252.

Photo by Brandon Dahlquist



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