“If you went away for a week and I spent the whole time in bed with a
photographer, would you be mad?” nosy neighbor Marge asks her husband Charlie in “The Bridges of Madison County,” the new lush and lovely Broadway musical.
“You’d have your reasons, I
guess,” Charlie eventually answers, not looking up from his paper. “I mean, look at me.”
Marge and Charlie are a terrific addition to the story of the affair between Francesca, an Italian-born Iowa farm wife, and world-traveling National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid — not least because of the performers Cass Morgan and Michael S. Martin, with their perfect comic timing and strong voices full of feeling. Marge’s question and Charlie’s answer seem the musical’s acknowledgement that its story, in bold outline, is a tad…silly. That didn’t stop the 1992 novel by Robert James Waller from selling 50 million copies, nor the 1995 film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep from critical acclaim and healthy profits. And it improbably strikes gold again in this swoon-worthy musical adaptation composed by Jason Robert Brown (“Parade,” “The Last Five Years”), with a book by Marsha Norman (best-known for the play “‘night, Mother” but also the book writer for the musicals “The Secret Garden,” and “The Color Purple”)
If you’re going to do a big Broadway musical about a four-day adulterous affair that occurred 50 years ago, this is the way to do it.
There is no question that the two leads, Kelli O’Hara as Francesca and Steven Pasquale as Robert, deserve much of the credit for the appeal of this show, which can only have its full impact when seen live. (The videos and audio to promote it do not do it justice.) O’Hara (The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific) is in fine full voice, a voice that envelopes you in its lusciousness. But she is also convincing and sympathetic as a lonely housewife – even her Italian accent is spot-on. Those of us who saw the two perform together as an alienated married couple in Far From Heaven can’t help but be impressed by their transformation here, into a pair with immense chemistry — magnetic, electric (nuclear?) Pasquale manages to fulfill the romance novel requirements of the perfect manly fantasy and yet exist as a credible character.
O’Hara hooks you from the moment she comes out on stage, alone, singing of her life up to this point, how she met her husband on his tour of duty in Italy, and settled for the life he offered, in To Build A Home.
I learn to speak, I learn to sew,
I learn to let the longing go,
The tractor wheel, a foot of snow, I build myself a home.
As she is singing, we see the cast bring various pieces of the home onto the stage – the refrigerator, a window – and put them into place, do-it-yourself Iowans building the home.
It’s a lovely touch, an antidote to the high-tech projection-crazy sets on Broadway. And it sets the tone for a show that has broadened to include a cast of 14 – all with amazing voices, and all in my view, used well.
We hear a folk song from Robert’s ex-wife, Marian (Whitney Bashor), playing guitar.
Husband Bud (Hunter Foster) sings of how he met “Frannie” (Something from a Dream)
And to me she’s still like something from a dream.
And to her, I’m like the guy who keeps the lights turned on. I’m gonna take her on a trip this year.
Maybe next summer.
Marge sings the bluesy “Get Closer,” one of the best songs in the show, while Robert Kincaid and Francesca dance.
Marge’s husband Charlie sings a song near the end, When I’m Gone, that is deeply touching.
Are any of these songs – or singers — strictly necessary to the story? That’s not the right question. They are all wonderful, and allow Brown to paint a musical picture, using a palette that ranges from folk to the blues to honky-tonk to 50’s-style rock to art songs that reach operatic intensity.
Smirk at the story if you want, but the Bridges of Madison County is well-written, well-acted, lusciously sung, beautifully and cleverly designed — from Michael Yeargan’s sets to Catherine Zuber’s costumes to Donald Holder’s lighting. And, damn the last ten minutes, which catches us up quickly and absurdly on the half century of pining after the affair, but instead of rolling your eyes, there are tears there.
The Bridges of Madison County
At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater
Book by Marsha Norman; music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, based on the novel by Robert James Waller; directed by Bartlett Sher; music director, Tom Murray; movement by Danny Mefford; sets by Michael Yeargan; costumes by Catherine Zuber; lighting by Donald Holder; sound by Jon Weston; hair and wig design by David Brian Brown; orchestrations by Mr. Brown; music coordinator, Michael Keller
Cast: Kelli O’Hara (Francesca), Steven Pasquale (Robert), Hunter Foster (Bud), Michael X. Martin (Charlie), Cass Morgan (Marge), Caitlin Kinnunen (Carolyn), Derek Klena (Michael) and Whitney Bashor (Marian/Chiara).
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.
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