Broadway Review: ‘The Bridges of Madison County’

Bridges of Madison County reviews Broadway

Stars Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale are in fine voice, but this musical adaptation of the sappy 1992 novella turns the material into a quasi-operatic beast.

Everybody knows that playwrights shouldn’t direct their own plays.  But composers might also think twice about doing their own orchestrations.  In an intimate house, Jason Robert Brown’s lushly melodic score for “The Bridges of Madison County” would seem a proper fit for Marsha Norman’s book, which is gushy but more literate than Robert James Waller’s mawkish 1992 novella about soulful lovers in a hopeless adulterous affair.  But although Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale are in glorious voice as this passionate pair, the bombastic orchestrations and Bartlett Sher’s overstated helming inflate the production into some quasi-operatic beast that thinks it’s “Aida.”

O’Hara’s soaring dramatic soprano (showcased in Sher-helmed musicals “South Pacific” and “Light in the Piazza”) is sweet and true enough to earn her a pass on the atrocious accent she struggles with as Francesca Johnson, an Italian war bride slowly turning to dust as a farmer’s wife in 1960s Iowa.  It’s harder to reconcile her youthful bloom with the character of a middle-aged housewife and worn-out mother of two teenagers, especially when those corn-fed farm kids stand taller and look older than she does.

Casting young may have won the dynamic leads, but it also cost the production the powerful emotional tug of watching two middle-aged people work up the courage to make one last grasp at happiness — as both the original novel and the subsequent film adaptation starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep would have it.

Despite being miscast, the lovely O’Hara is a great match with Steven Pasquale (“Rescue Me”), whose good looks and dreamy tenor make an attractive hero of Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer assigned to do a feature on Iowa’s famous covered bridges.  Coming upon Francesca among the alien corn, the world-weary Robert is at first intrigued and then enchanted by this exotic flower, out of her element and parched for love.

Once they fall into one another’s arms, there’s no dearth of love songs for the lovers in Brown’s swoony score. There’s real yearning in ballads like “Falling Into You,” “Who We Are & Who We Want to Be,” “One Second & a Million Miles” and “When I’m Gone,” although the histrionic approach too often shoves that tender emotion over the cliff into high tragedy.

It hardly needs saying that the covered bridge that brings Francesca and Robert together — the central image of both the book (three years on the best-seller list) and the1995 movie (an Academy Award nomination for Streep) — is a crucial visual.  But there’s no covered bridge in sight here, just assorted pieces of lumber suspended in midair, along with other scraps of scenery (was that a fence?) floating around on set designer Michael Yeargan’s abstract stage.

Played against a color-drenched cyclorama of sunrises, sunsets, endless cornfields and infinite blue skies (all of this enhanced by Donald Holder’s dramatic lighting design), the fragile intimacy of Francesca’s and Robert’s four-day love affair is in constant danger of being swallowed up by the vast emptiness of the landscape.  But while the highly stylized staging best conveys Francesca’s existential loneliness — that uneasy feeling of being a lost traveler in a strange and hostile land — it doesn’t address her social alienation in the real world of 1960s rural Iowa.

Francesca is even an outsider in her own family. Her dull, stolid farmer-husband, Bud (an understandably glum Hunter Foster), and annoying children (Caitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena, doing nothing to advance their careers) are hollow caricatures of farm folk, but at least they’re recognizably human. At the end of a long day at the Iowa State Fair with the kids, Bud gets a little drunk and calls home.  Picking up on his wife’s distracted tone, he sings a deeply felt but poignantly inarticulate song (“Something From a Dream”) about the feelings he can’t express and doesn’t even seem to understand.

While Robert’s first wife, Marian, doesn’t have a single line of dialogue, the ethereal Whitney Bashor materializes for one exquisite song, “Another Life,” sung from a broken heart. Like Bud’s cri de coeur, it’s the subdued lament of someone who loves but isn’t loved back, and it’s as painfully moving as any of the triumphal anthems (which tend to blur into one another) sung by those true soulmates Francesca and Robert.  Although he seems to think he’s slumming when he writes from a still, quiet place, Brown has an intimate knowledge of such places in the heart.

Outside the sanctuary of the love affair, it’s one big wasteland out there.  There’s absolutely no sign of all those shopkeepers and schoolmarms and barbers and preachers and hired hands and town gossips you’d expect to find in a real town.  In their place is a shadowy army of zombies, mute ciphers in drab work clothes and flour-sack dresses who mill about the stage shaking their heads and scowling in disapproval of Francesca’s adulterous affair.  The obvious if debatable point is that no one in the American heartland ever gets up to any hanky-panky, and if they did, they would be ostracized by the entire community.

But the zombie population doesn’t really count as community, and the only two human characters within walking distance of the farm — garrulous neighbor Marge (Cass Morgan, overacting up a storm) and her dour farmer husband Charlie (Michael X. Martin) seem sympathetic to Francesca’s plight.  Marge takes it a step further and becomes complicit in her neighbor’s romantic affair.   Zombies or no zombies, she’d probably run off with Robert herself.

Broadway Review: 'The Bridges of Madison County'

Gerald Schoenfeld Theater; 1009 seats; $141 top.  Opened Feb. 20, 2014.  Reviewed Feb. 14.  Running time:  TWO HOURS, 30 MIN.

Production

A Jeffrey Richards, Stacey Mindich, Jerry Frankel, Gutterman Chernoff, Hunter Arnold, Ken Davenport, Carl Daikeler, Michael DeSantis, Libby Adler Mages / Mari Glick Stuart, Scott M. Delman, Independent Presenters Network, Aaron Priest, Red Mountain Theater Company, Caiola Prods., Remmel T. Dickinson, Ken Greiner, David Lancaster, Bellanca Smigel Rutter, Mark S. Golub & David S. Golub, Will Trice presentation, with Warner Bros Theater Ventures and the Shubert Organization, in association with the Williamstown Theater Festival, of a musical in two acts by Marsha Norman, with music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, based on a novel by Robert James Waller.  

Creative

Directed by Bartlett Sher.  Sets, Michael Yeargan; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Jon Weston; hair & wigs, David Brian Brown; orchestrations, Jason Robert Brown; movement, Danny Mefford; music director, Tom Murray; production stage manager, Jennifer Rae Moore.  

Cast

Kelli O'Hara, Steven Pasquale, Hunter Foster, Michael X. Martin, Cass Morgan, Caitlin Kinnunen, Derek Klena, Whitney Bashor.

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  1. M. St John says:

    What thorn was poking Stasio this time? Who reviews a new musical play with an eye looking for a David Lean epic motion picture? Maybe NY voters will soon pass legislation to supply cannabis for its theatrical reviewers.

  2. johnmurphymusic says:

    As a professional musician, I couldn’t disagree more with Ms. Stasio’s opinion on the orchestration of “Bridges of Madison County”. Mr. Brown’s orchestration provides a lush and create accompaniment that compliments the actors and setting. I believe in twenty years from now, Mr. Brown’s orchestrations will be respected alongside the works of Tunick, Ramin, Bennett, and Walker. Perhaps Ms. Stasio should attend (or re-attend?) a music conservatory and take an orchestration class before using adjectives like “bombastic”.

  3. The voices are gorgeous. Ms. O Haras’ diction is impeccable. But I felt nothing for the characters. I didn’t understand why a hunky photographer would pine for the rest of his life for a ‘stand’ that might have been ok with this boring lady for one night. But why would he stay four nights? I didn’t feel the connection between the two leads? I felt like they sang great but no real emotion. I enjoyed the neighbors, Cass Morgan and Michael X Martin. Maybe it was just my mood on that night. But others in the audience did mention they same.

  4. Clay Hoblit says:

    A weak review from some out of touch critic. My wife and I saw this production on Monday night and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a packed house and judging from comments and expressions after the show, the audience loved it. Great chemistry between the two lead actors. There were not many dry eyes when the lights came on. We would recommend this production.

    • mary says:

      Sounds like a lovely show. I know that I would have had tears at the end also. At the end of the movie….when I saw it the first time….I wished she had opened the truck door! and what would have happened IF she had gone with him. ?? Guess it had to end the way it did. They did have their moments together. If I recall correctly…when her husband died…she did try to find him..but could not.

  5. ThomT says:

    This show looks to be a hard sell. Preview ticket sales were nowhere close to what one would have expected from a well known title (although never before a musical) and two very popular Broadway performers. I saw lots of promotions and a “sneak” previews of at least one of Miss O’Hara’s songs on XM (unusual for a show prior to opening) and yet preview numbers were, in my opinion, disappointing. I never want to see a show fail as so much time and talent (not to mention money) goes into mounting a production but I just don’t see this show having legs. If “Big FIsh”, a much more traditional big flashy Broadway musical, couldn’t find an audience I can’t imagine how “Bridges of Madison County” can. Other reviews I’ve read (except the NYTimes) have been much more positive so I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a successful run.

  6. Katie M. says:

    Did you see the same musical I did because I thought it was spectacular. Any ordinary human didn’t walk out of that theater without shedding a tear (or two) and being moved by the chemistry between Kelli and Steven. I have seen Kelli in several musicals so far and she just gets better and better, It is a hit – go see it without delay.

  7. mtra11 says:

    I meant to mention how surprised I was to see Steven Pasquale as the male lead. Who knew he could sing…?? I loved the show he was in for so many years….Rescue Me. Talented guy !!!!!!

    • ThomT says:

      Pasquale has done musical theater (Broadway, off-Broadway & concert) previously and also has recorded an album of standards and theater music which is certainly worth a listen.

      • mary says:

        thanks again for the information. I am surprised he left Broadway for tv. Maybe the money ??? do try to get hold of a dvd of Rescue Me…just to see his part..which is so different from his musical career.

        http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0381798/fullcredits

      • ThomT says:

        Pasquale has a very interesting (and varied) theatrical career. He was the original Fabrizio in “The Light In The Piazza” before it reached Broadway. Because of “Rescue Me” he had to leave “Piazza” and was replaced by Matthew Morrison (who not only starred with Miss O’Hara but also played opposite her in the Lincoln Center production of “South Pacific” before he left to star in “Glee”). Kelli O’Hara was in “Piazza” from the start but moved up to the lead role from a secondary role when the show arrived in NYC. Steven was in the off-Broadway show “The Wild Party” (not to be confused with the different show with the same title that played Broadway at nearly the same time) but does not appear on the cast album. He is however, on the cast albums of “The Spitfire Grill” and “Far From Heaven” (in which he starred with O’Hara yet again). Pasquale’s longest running theater role was as Chris in the late 1990s national touring company of “Miss Saigon”. Although I’ve never seen him on “Rescue Me” I have seen him perform live a couple of times and find him a excellent performer.

      • mary says:

        Thanks for the information. I will have to check some of those out. Did you ever see him on the tv show…Rescue Me ??? It was on FX. .for several years.

  8. mary says:

    hard to imagine a musical of this book. I loved the book…..and the ending….made me shed some tears. I
    also teared up at the movie. I tend to do that!!

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