Steven Pasquale and Kelli O'Hara in The Bridges of Madison County
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
If Our Town were to be crossed with Oklahoma! and infused with a dose of opera, the resulting hybrid might look and feel something like the new musical, The Bridges of Madison County, which opened last night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, a simple and grand affair that wants to be both intimate and soaring. It's a show that inspires an immense amount of admiration for its aspirations and various achievements, but it proves almost steadfastly unmoving.
With a score by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Marsha Norman, the show is based, of course, on Robert James Wallers' phenomenally successful novel of the same name. The book, in turn, produced an acclaimed film, and most likely, theatergoers familiar with either (or both) will come to the theater prepared for a three-handkerchief experience as they relive the torrid and ill-fated affair that blossoms between bored Iowan housewife Francesca (Kelli O'Hara) and the National Geographic photographer Robert (Steven Pasquale), who shows up on her porch one August day.
For this tale set in middle America in 1965, Barlett Sher and scenic designer Michael Yeargan appear to have taken a cue from Wilder's classic and kept the look of the show simple. There's a gorgeous backdrop that makes the flat expansiveness of the Midwest come to life. To shift the action between houses, and other locations, the ensemble shifts furniture, bits of fence and windows and other items to shift the action from location to location. It's a terrific conceit for a big Broadway musical, and one that underscores the sense of the tightness of the community in which Francesca, a war bride from Italy, has endured during her loving, but unexciting, marriage to Bud (Hunter Foster).
The show's handsome visual modestness also mirrors the simplicity of the basic story. Francesca is alone on the farm because Bud and the couple's two teenage children, Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Michael (Derek Klena) have headed off to the Indiana State Fair, where the kids are competing for a national title in a 4H competition. Robert shows up looking for directions to one of the titular bridges, and in short order, his free spirit (the locals think he's a hippy) awakens the passions that Francesca thought were worn down and eventually extinguished by the dreary life she's led since leaving her native Napoli.
If the musical were to center on just the love affair, "Bridges" might prove to be an extremely taut and moving little tuner, but Norman's book and Brown's score digress far too often to other places. We learn far more about the marriage between a neighboring farm couple's life than we need to, and the cutaways to events unfolding two states away, though showing the family's dependence on Francesca's strong love and sure sight, just distract.
Similarly, Brown's score often feels overcrammed as numbers like "Another Life" (performed by Whitney Bashor as Robert's ex-wife), the big-band sounding "Get Closer" (performed by Cass Morgan as neighbor Marge), and "State Road 21" (the act two hoedown-like opener, where the sense of the show's reflection of Oklahoma! becomes most keenly felt) merely stall the action. It's not that there's anything wrong with the songs---they're concurrently tuneful and provide color and comment on the main action---they just seem to be in the way. Further, it should be noted that Brown, while working in country-western and pop idioms that are familiar from his other shows like The Last Five Years and Parade, stretches to new heights in "Bridges," writing a couple of striking almost arias for Francesca that O'Hara delivers exquisitely.
Her vocals and intensity are matched note for note by Pasquale, and perhaps that might be some of the production's problem. The chemistry and sheer magnetism that they share and have is utterly and completely engrossing. The world disappears for the characters, and perhaps given the luminous turns these two are giving, one simply wants everything else to vanish as well.
That's not to say that there's anything wrong with other principal turns. Foster's work as Bud impresses as he finds nuance what good become a stock good ole boy character and Morgan's work as the big-hearted, busybody neighbor Marge never becomes a caricature.
The balance of the show's visuals, too, from Catherine Zuber's period costumes to Donald Holder's lush lighting design are remarkable, and it should be noted that Jon Weston has provided one of the most sensitive sound designs of recent memory. To hear a piano sound as if it were coming out of the pit unamplified is a treat beyond compare.
And yet, despite all of this excellence and intelligence, "Bridges" never reaches the moment when it transports audiences. To be sure, it's a welcome adult musical, and one that earns admiration on many levels. I just couldn't help but wish that my heart were as utterly engaged in the show as my mind was as the show unfolded.
---- Andy Propst
The Bridges of Madison County plays at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: bridgesofmadisoncountymusical.com.