The Bridges of Madison County continues at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York for an open-ended run.
The joy and pain of a sequestered, briefly realised but undying love are rendered both intelligently and passionately in The Bridges of Madison County, the new Broadway musical adapted from the 1992 novel of the same name by Robert James Waller. The writer’s romantic tale, which also became a 1995 movie, was derided by some critics as being sloppily sentimental, but it obviously touched many readers, remaining a best-selling book for more than three years.
The creators of the musical, librettist Marsha Norman and composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown, have obviously worked hard and successfully so, to keep any hint of cheesiness away from their retelling. Brown’s score, in fact, raises the passion to impressively opera-like heights, while Norman’s astute book keeps the tale grounded in quotidian detail and touches of earthy humour. Their work also provides the material for a triumphant performance by a favourite of the Broadway musical world, Kelli O’Hara.
The story centres on an Italian woman, Francesca, who after the Second World War marries an American soldier. He takes her from her home in Naples to settle on his farm in Iowa in the prairie midlands of America. Her life is consumed with the chores of housekeeping and raising her two children, but one day, while Francesca is home alone after the rest of the brood has gone off to an agricultural fair, Robert Kincaid turns up on the farm. Kincaid is a photographer for National Geographic magazine, assigned to document the area’s historic covered bridges, and he has stopped to ask directions. An immediate spark is ignited between the two, and the chance meeting turns into a four-day affair, whose depth is to last a lifetime, even as Francesca is compelled to stay with her family obligations.
O‘Hara, her blonde tresses now brunette, is totally convincing as Francesca, a woman who once dreamed of being an artist, and now is out of her comfort zone as a farm wife, but nevertheless remains dedicated to her family. She captures the audience’s sympathy from the first in the slowly building opening number in which she enters alone on stage (there is no overture) and tells us in song and the slightest of Italian accents how she came from Naples to settle and build a home in Iowa. She is gradually joined by other cast members, the skeletal scenery of her house comes into place, and we are in the midst of Francesca‘s everyday life.
Then, as the central love story of the show unfolds, O’Hara’s singing becomes only more glorious with every number.
As Kincaid, Stephen Pasquale sings brilliantly as well and is as hunky as any lonely Iowa housewife could want. My one complaint, and it’s not a small one, is that he projects an inherent youthfulness that seems out-of-sync with the experienced but lifelong loner he professes to be. He often comes across as a nicely-mannered, bashful kid, trying to come out of his shell, and it takes away from the complexity of his romantic awakening. Yet you may forgive this deficiency once he starts singing in a rich, vibrant tenor the big theatre-filling arias Brown has written for him and the breathtaking duets he shares with O’Hara.
I have some other gripes as well. Although Bartlett Sher has directed with sensitivity the intimate love scenes and the scenes depicting Francesca’s relationships with her husband and two teenage kids, he has also filled the production with some oddball expressionistic quirks. They are mainly the many set changes, which have scenery pieces being brought on and off by members of the ensemble, who often appear zombie-like or simply glance askance at the proceedings while sitting on the side.
In a programme note, Sher says that a goal of the production was “to activate the community into a witness, bystander, potential conflict and, in some ways, transformative element in the piece”. However, this particular ploy seemed to me repeatedly distracting and opposite to the secret nature of the central love affair. There was also a tendency to play too broadly the comic interludes between Francesca’s well-meaning but curious neighbour, Marge, and her husband, Charlie. When the two characters simmer down into a more realistic mode, the performances by Cass Morgan and Michael X Martin are affecting.
Also on the plus side is the terrific work by Hunter Foster as Francesca’s husband, Bud. He is quietly endearing as a loving man who cannot plumb the inner yearnings of his wife or contend with the rambunctious ways of his kids. He also handles infectiously the twangy tunes Brown has written for him. Noteworthy, too, are Caitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena as Bud and Francesca’s children, going from quibbling teenagers to accomplished adults.
As the show moves toward its close, it grows in emotionality, and Brown and the cast deliver one tremendously moving number after another. After an ecstatic final duet between Francesca and Kincaid, there comes a production number depicting in dialogue and music the passage of time. Then, Kincaid, as illness closes in on his solitary but well-travelled life, recounts the enduring nature of his love for Francesca. Finally, Francesca reflects magnificently on the choices she has made and how love was involved in all of them.
Despite some bumps in the road, this remapping of The Bridges of Madison County makes for a journey into sincerely realised musical theatre on a grand yet intimate plane.
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