BRIAN KELLOW takes in Jason Robert Brown's Broadway adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County.
Steven Pasquale and Kelli O'Hara in The Bridges of Madison County
© Joan Marcus
Cass Morgan (Marge) and Michael X. Martin (Charlie)
© Joan Marcus 2014
How do you explain the lukewarm box-office response that has greeted Jason Robert Brown's new Broadway musical, The Bridges of Madison County, which opened in February at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre? We have gotten so wise to the taste of many of New York's theater critics that we often have a strong sense in advance of how they will respond to a new show — something that takes a lot of the fun and suspense out of reading their reviews. But Ben Brantley's rather downbeat review in The New York Times was a surprise. Just what is it about this show that renders it so easily dismissed?
For starters, The Bridges of Madison County does what any decent musical based on well-known source material is supposed to do: it takes the original and transforms; the addition of music makes the story seem bigger and deeper, not smaller and thinner. In Robert James Waller's best-selling 1992 novel, there's a built-in lack of surprise about where things are going. The novel tells of the short, impassioned romance between Francesca, the Italian woman who married an Iowa farmer and came to America to build a life after World War II, and Robert, the National Geographic photographer who has come to Iowa to photograph covered bridges for his publication. We know that Francesca and Robert are not going to wind up together; Waller telegraphs his bittersweet ending just as Noël Coward does in his classic Brief Encounter. But the musical adaptation offers plenty of surprises in the way that Marsha Norman, who wrote the book, shows us how this quick, hot, fleeting-yet-permanent romance resonates in so many directions. Some of the finest moments in Bridges belong to the supporting characters, such as Bud (Hunter Foster), Francesca's stolid, likable but unimaginative husband, Bud and Francesca's neighbor Marge (Cass Morgan), and Robert's ex-wife Marian (Whitney Bashor). We see very little of Marge's life, but what we do see is beautifully illuminated by her response to the sudden, unexpected affair between Francesca and Robert. Extramarital affairs are so often sudden and unexpected, and all of their little ecstasies and heartbreaks are brilliantly caught by Norman and Brown. Norman's script is full of lines with a memorable comic spin: when Robert asks Francesca if they should milk the cow before they take off for a romantic getaway in Des Moines, she answers, "I forget if we have a cow." Brown's work is exceptional. In a musical that largely revolves around thwarted dreams, his score is never redundant; each song has a rich life of its own. I especially loved "Another Life," the flashback song he has provided for Marian, and "Get Closer," a Patsy Cline-style number that Cass Morgan's Marge delivers with idiomatic flair. (Morgan didn't sound like a theater singer, but the real country-western deal.)
The director is Bartlett Sher and the designers Michael Yeargan (sets) and Catherine Zuber (costumes). This is the same team that gave us one of the great musicals of the last decade, Light in the Piazza, in 2005, which has much in common with The Bridges of Madison County. Both are stories that unfold in the interior of their characters' lives, yet both are consistently absorbing, because Sher knows how to move the action along faultlessly; we're conscious every moment of the depth of what's happening between Francesca and Robert, but we're even more conscious of how cruelly fast it's all moving. In the opera house, Sher has often seemed at sea, falling back on gimmickry and desperate ways to fill the Met stage, but here he proves himself an enormously fine storyteller, adept at both simplicity and profundity.
Perhaps we don't really believe that Kelli O'Hara's Waspy Francesca is Italian, but everything else about Bridges seems dead on. The farm people are real, not caricatures; Hunter Foster's Bud is so authentic that I swore I got a whiff of barn smell from him. But the two things that are most firmly in the show's favor are the performances of its two stars. O'Hara gives a beautifully observed account of Francesca, hitting every crucial nuance of her honest wit, her fatigue, her yearning; when we first see her, we know that she has come to some sort of terms with her own lack of fulfillment, and that this place of compromise is where she must eventually return. There are details in her performance that I won't soon forget, such as her frantically flipping through Robert's copy of National Geographic to see photographs of her birthplace, Naples. Her beautifully trained soprano is one of the best voices to be heard on Broadway right now, and the same can be said of Steven Pasquale, who alternates between a robust baritone and a pop mix voice with breathtaking ease, and has a magnificent 11:00 number, "It All Fades Away." The Bridges of Madison County is a story with both power and intimacy — it's what we crave from opera, and what we don't get often enough these days.
Click here to buy the original Broadway cast recording of The Bridges of Madison County on iTunes.
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