The Iowa featured in the new musical "The Bridges of Madison County" is flat indeed but, oh boy, the voices soar.
Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale come just short of blowing the roof off the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in this touching doomed romance that features a superb, thrilling score by Jason Robert Brown.
Brown, the talented composer behind "13," ''The Last Five Years" and "Parade," has never had a real New York hit. This should be it.
The musical, which opened Thursday, is based on the Robert James Waller novel, which was made into a 1995 movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. For this one, the movie stars have given way to some Broadway veterans.
It's about a four-day love affair in 1965 between Robert Kincaid, a world-weary photographer on assignment to shoot a series of covered bridges, and Francesca, an Italian-American housewife who was rescued from bombed-out Naples by a U.S. serviceman, who became her husband, but lives without real passion.
A sometimes bloated and meandering book by Marsha Norman and some odd choices by director Bartlett Sher can't take anything away from a score that brilliantly goes from torch song to blues and honky-tonk to virtual opera, led by two actors with genuine feeling and a seemingly endless reservoir of notes.
There's a neat, breezy set that's heavy on fences by Michael Yeargan — a simple triangle stands in for a rooftop and there's a terrific tree — but it may leave purists aghast that there are no covered bridges, only nesting rectangles. Relax, you'll get over it.
An adulterous affair isn't the normal stuff of musicals but the audience immediately buys into O'Hara's sense of an unfulfilled life and her flowering under the touch of Pasquale's hunkiness. The fact that Francesca's husband (the always-reliable Hunter Foster) doesn't come across as particularly evil is nicely done. But a messy and confrontational side plot about the kids "growing up" at the county fair — and conveniently leaving Francesca home alone during the affair — doesn't add much.
The play has some other weird elements, in particular, neighbors and minor characters sit onstage during much of the show, including the most intimate moments. At the top of Act 2, the new lovers are suddenly revealed in their post-coital bed in a scene marred somewhat by a guy on the side strumming a guitar.
It may be a nod to small-town distrust of outsiders, but seems to poorly mimic "Once," the neighboring musical also about a missed love connection. It might have been better to play with the use of people occupying the same stage as memories, as is done when Kincaid's ex-wife wordlessly enters Francesca's kitchen like a ghost and then sings a stunning song about their marriage, "Another Life."
Once the real lovers do connect — Act 1 drags a little with their idle chitchat ("Was I supposed to get kale?" he asks) — we're off to a terrific Act 2 with a string of musical pearls in the break-out hit duet "One Second & A Million Miles" and a smartly staged "When I'm Gone."
Pasquale then smashes the sound barrier with his "It All Fades Away" and the company finishes with a triumphant "Always Better," led by a brilliant O'Hara, giving it her all. These are such convincing, yearning lovers that the first few rows might feel residual heat.
Yes, Francesca's Italian accent sometimes veers into Transylvania, her kids look more likely to be Ph.D. candidates than teens, and a neighbor's arc from nosy troublemaker to ally isn't very smooth, but the sophisticated, sumptuous score is cause for celebration.
"Iowa is so flat, you feel like the only way out is to blast straight up like a rocket," Francesca tells her lover. And so the pair do, thrillingly.
Robert James Waller’s 1992 romantic best-seller “The Bridges of Madison County” and the Meryl Streep-Clint Eastwood movie it spawned struck many as sappy — but Broadway’s lush musical version is grown-up and plain old-fashioned beautiful.
The stage adaptation by Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”) and Marsha Norman (“’night Mother”) is a familiar, yet stylish tale that earns its tears. And it’s never sappy.
The focus, from the get-go, is Francesca Johnson (Kelli O’Hara, a four-time Tony nominee). In the aria-like opening solo, she recalls her journey from postwar Italy to the middle of Iowa. Flash forward to 1965, and she’s wife and mother questioning where life has taken her.
When her husband Bud (Hunter Foster) and teenaged kids Michael (Derek Klena) and Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) leave home with a prize cow for the state fair, Francesca welcomes solitude and a chance to “read seed catalogs.”
But National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale) proves far more interesting than Burpee beets and radishes.
Kincaid needs directions to one of the titular covered spans — and the pair’s small talk quickly turns into big pulse-quickening passions during a four-day affair.
In this way, Francesca is a distant cousin of the love-deprived Lizzie Curry of “110 in the Shade,” whose fling with a sexy stranger compels her to consider a life far from her humdrum one. Both women — and the men — are forever marked by their experiences.
The musical “Bridges” widens the scope of the book and movie and invents a couple of Johnson’s neighbors — salt-of-the-earth Charlie (Michael X. Martin) and nosy-but-protective Marge (Cass Morgan) — and an omnipresent farm community devoted to its own. If Francesca’s going to stay, there’s comfort knowing she’s in a good place.
Director Bartlett Sher, who helmed “South Pacific” and “The Light in the Piazza” with O’Hara, underscores the communal idea in his airy staging in which past and present sometimes merge as characters hawk-eye the action from seats flanking the stage. In a terrific time-blurring scene, Robert’s ex-wife, Marian (Whitney Bashor), sings of her marriage-gone-wrong as Kincaid draws close to Francesca.
The beating heart of the show is Brown’s score. It’s richly melodic and rhythmic — and one of Broadway’s best in the last decade. Brown’s stirring orchestrations — strings, piano and percussion — provide perfect settings for his musical gems.
Norman’s book coaxes warmth and authenticity from the central love story. She’s less successful in family and neighbor subplots meant to provide contrast to the romance. These characterizations push the comic relief to the point where they’re jarring.
The equilibrium and mood return when the lovers are center stage. The Irish O’Hara evokes Naples with a dark wig and a convincing Italian accent. She gives a performance of rare and radiant grace. Pasquale, who starred with O’Hara last year Off-Broadway in the misfire “Far From Heaven,” has the rugged good looks made for the part. He matches her moment by moment with his virile vocals.
Like the story’s brief but enduring romance, “Bridges of Madison County” and its blissfully beautiful score and shimmering star turns stay with you well after the last lovely notes fade.
The prospect of a musical version of “The Bridges of Madison County” was scary — yes, even more so than a singing and dancing “Rocky.”
That’s because Broadway tuners can easily skid into sticky, stinky cheese, even without source material as cloying as Robert James Waller’s 1992 tear-jerker of a novel.
Add the unlikely casting of fair-skinned, golden-haired Kelli O’Hara (“South Pacific”) as the Italian-born heroine and the show’s tacky TV ad campaign, and it seemed “Bridges” would give us enough schmaltz to supply New York’s delis.
Happily, that’s not the case. Bartlett Sher’s production, which opened Thursday night, is merely a mixed bag, one in which cringe-inducing bits alternate with moments of musical-theater nirvana.
Despite the trepidation around her casting, all of the grace notes have to do with O’Hara. Not only does she deliver a finely tuned performance, but she also inspired composer Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years”) to new heights. He tailored her character’s numbers to his star’s range and sensibility, and her songs, like “What Do You Call a Man?” and “Almost Real,” have a heartbreaking beauty.
Decked out in a brunette wig, O’Hara sings like a dream and is unexpectedly funny as the Italian war bride, Francesca. Indeed, she doesn’t look any faker than that other famously swarthy star, Meryl Streep, who played the role in the ’95 movie.
The time is 1965, the place Iowa, where an American soldier, Bud Johnson (Hunter Foster), brought Francesca from Naples 18 years before. Now they have two teenage children and a quiet life on their farm. As Francesca tells her busybody neighbor Marge (Cass Morgan), “I already have everything I need.”
But she doesn’t. And this becomes even more obvious when a hunky photographer, Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale, of TV’s “Rescue Me”), materializes while the rest of the family is off at the state fair.
He’s come to shoot the county’s covered bridges, and Francesca’s only too happy to show him the sights. Including some naked ones.
The pair’s connection is instant and deep, yet short-lived. But that liaison will haunt them both for the rest of their lives.
Brown and book writer Marsha Norman (“The Color Purple”) have largely stayed true to the love story, including its flaws. Pasquale is a dashing Robert, but the character’s too perfect to be interesting — a gallant feminist, he even makes delicious post-coital coffee.
And the supporting tribe is weak. Bud’s songs are clunky, and Robert’s ex-wife (Whitney Bashor) exists only to sing what sounds like a Joni Mitchell B-side.
The show really belongs to Francesca, whose songs brilliantly mix a sense of intimacy with near-operatic grandeur. This is perfectly encapsulated in the expository opening number, “To Build a Home,” in which she tells us how she ended up in Iowa as we see her house take shape onstage.
If there is an affair to remember here, it’s the enduring one between O’Hara and the audience.
“Iowa.” When Kelli O’Hara sings that word, a plain place name becomes a prism of rippling ambivalence.
Portraying an Italian war bride transplanted to the middle of America, Ms. O’Hara finds a breathtaking sweep of feelings within the iteration of those three small syllables. “Iowa,” she sings, in the number that begins the new musical “The Bridges of Madison County,” and you hear both the heady hope of liberation and the hopeless acceptance of captivity.
And suddenly, Madison County starts to seem like a far more exciting place to visit than you might have imagined.
I am happy to say that Ms. O’Hara more than keeps the promises made by her interpretation of that first song, one of many sumptuous pieces that feel as if they had been written specifically for her by the show’s composer, Jason Robert Brown. She also confirms her position as one of the most exquisitely expressive stars in musical theater. Her Francesca, a questioning farmer’s wife who briefly discovers a love with all the answers, brings a rich and varied topography to what might have been strictly flat corn country.
True, the rest of the show, directed by Bartlett Sher with a script by Marsha Norman, isn’t nearly as multidimensional. Though Ms. O’Hara has a lust-worthy leading man in Steven Pasquale, most of what surrounds her has the depth of a shiny picture postcard, one that bears a disproportionately long and repetitive message. Still, when you have a central performance as sensitive, probing and operatically rich and lustrous as Ms. O’Hara’s, you won’t find me kvetching too loudly (or not in the early paragraphs, anyway).
You have probably at least heard of the 1992 best seller that inspired this musical, and the idea of its being reincarnated may well give you the willies. Written by Robert James Waller, “The Bridges of Madison County” was sort of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” of two decades ago, or make that “Fifty Shades of Vanilla.”
Though not nearly as erotically explicit (or exotic) as E. L. James’s “Grey,” Mr. Waller’s novel similarly taps into classic fantasies of the mysterious man as sexual liberator. The book’s hero, a roving photographer named Robert, walks into the life of the comfortably married if vaguely dissatisfied Francesca and leaves her shaken, stirred and forever changed.
Though neither of them actually says, “I never knew it could be like this,” they might as well, since they say a lot worse. (Him to her: “This is why I’m here on this planet, at this time, Francesca. Not to travel or make pictures, but to love you.”) I earnestly tried to get through Mr. Waller’s “Bridges.” But though it’s short, and I have I fairly high tolerance for romantic swill, I had to stop halfway through.
Still, one person’s hokum is another’s profound poetry. That Mr. Waller’s book plucks at genuine chords of longing, which can be explored to complex effect, became evident when Meryl Streep played Francesca to acclaim in Clint Eastwood’s 1995 film adaptation. Now, Ms. O’Hara is giving us another reason to be grateful for the existence of a critically reviled novel.
Francesca remains a habit-numbed woman of a certain age, married to a good but boring man, Bud (Hunter Foster), and dimly aware that life hasn’t turned out the way she hoped. Then one day, while Bud and her noisy teenage children — Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Michael (Derek Klena) — are away at the state fair, a stranger comes to town. That’s Robert Kincaid (Mr. Pasquale), who has been assigned by National Geographic magazine to take pictures of Madison County’s covered bridges. He also has the body of a Greek god and the soul of a poet.
Fortunately, music is the food of love, or so I hear, and Mr. Brown (“Parade,” “The Last Five Years”) gives us plenty of rich fare to feast on. There is, to be sure, some of the expected celestial-violins stuff so beloved by cinematic composers, with wordless backup choruses that turn Iowa into the land of “ahs.”
But Mr. Brown also brings layered textures of yearning to his songs for Francesca that make us experience the world through her startled, newly awakened senses. Or at least that’s how we feel when Ms. O’Hara sings, in a voice that courses from flutelike fragility to thundering affirmation and back again.
Mr. Pasquale, who played opposite Ms. O’Hara in “The Light in the Piazza” in 2005, appropriately balances lyricism with hunkiness. “Bridges” is set in 1965, and Robert has been shaped here as a harbinger of a more freely lived life to come, a sort of James Taylor-ish troubadour who nicely fills out both a pair of jeans and a tremulous love duet.
Does he justify the depths-plumbing arias he inspires in Ms. O’Hara’s Francesca? Probably not. But passion, as writers from Sappho to Tolstoy have reminded us, is always as much about its own fiery existence as its object. And when Ms. O’Hara sings, we believe unconditionally in the fire, and why it both exalts and troubles her.
I would have been happier if “Bridges” had been a two-person show, with Mr. Pasquale provoking Ms. O’Hara into ever greater, exploratory heights of song. But since this is a big Broadway musical, it also embraces, far more expansively than Mr. Waller’s novel, the world that will ultimately bring its airborne heroine back to earth.
That world is filled with the prying eyes of narrow-minded town folk. They are sometimes bizarrely portrayed as close kin to the pod people from “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers”; at others, as peppy escapees from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “State Fair.”
The script by Ms. Norman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “ ’Night, Mother,” is obviously aiming for a sense of broader social context. But the scenes outside the central love story can come across as glib space fillers, especially when Francesca’s neighbors (played by the likable Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin) speculate cutely on what’s going on next door.
Mr. Sher, who directed Ms. O’Hara in the ravishing Lincoln Center Theater revival of “South Pacific,” has the ensemble sit onstage in chairs as an ever-vigilant chorus. (Michael Yeargan did the set, and Donald Holder the transformative lighting design.) This brings to mind Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” as does the staging of a wedding and a funeral in the final scenes.
Such business can register as perfunctory, like a way of marking time while pretending not to. And I’ll admit I felt as restless as the pre-Robert Francesca before the show was over.
But then Ms. O’Hara would sing. And the field of corn that is this production’s backdrop would seem to turn into a labyrinthine, richly hued forest where a woman, and an audience, can get lost in ecstasy.
"The Bridges of Madison County" is a ravishingly beautiful musical play based on the phenomenally popular 1992 weeper about a four-day love affair between an Iowa farm wife from Italy and a worldly photographer. In other words, this is unblushing Harlequin Romance-style material bound in top-quality leather.
So many intelligent, gifted artists are involved in this adaptation that we wish the objective were deeper than a high-toned bodice ripper with comic-relief detours into conventional Broadway. But Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale, magnificently magnetic as Francesca and Robert, make the ripping feel like real heartbreak. And director Bartlett Sher and his creative team from "South Pacific" are storytellers who understand the luscious power of simplicity. Even the bridges, the reason for the fateful encounter, are understated with planks that seem to float into place from the panoramic backdrop of Iowa sky.
Then there is the marvelous score by Jason Robert Brown, whose "Parade" won him a Tony but, to my mind, not enough love in 1999. He introduces the émigré Francesca -- O'Hara at her most emotionally and musically impeccable -- with just a cello melody, which comes back during her restless moments. As she comes to terms with her pleasant, unexciting home and family, Brown fills in the lonely cello with exceptionally sensitive orchestrations.
Robert, a National Geographic photographer, is a mysterious object of desire and suspicion to the snoopy townfolk. For him, Brown pushes the distant drifter's boundaries with full-throated love songs, mixed with bits of heartthrob crooning and an emotional revelation in exquisite a cappella. The sound is dark and twangy, but likable, for Hunter Foster, Francesca's tender but dull husband.
Fans of the novel and/or the 1995 movie may come to blows over questions of literary fidelity in Marsha Norman's smartly written but overpopulated book. Instead of keeping the lens tight on the closed world of the passionate lovers and their hot (but modestly dressed) sex scenes, the show opens into back stories and folksy numbers for too many extraneous characters. Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin are lovely as the nosy neighbors, but does each one deserve an amusing song?
We understand that Francesca's children (Caitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena) are at those awkward teen years, but do we need to know that much about the daughter's prize steer or the son's wild buddy? This context does raise the stakes when Francesca has to choose between their happiness and her own. With so much padding in the second act, however, we have too much time to realize how shamelessly we're being manipulated.
Near the end of Act One in Broadway's new musical adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County (**½ out of four stars), a hunky, romantically unattached photographer from out of town finds himself alone with a married woman, in her home.
"How did I get here?" Robert asks Francesca. His hostess replies, "I invited you," then adds, "Either that, or the patron saint of Iowa housewives sent you to me."
It's likely the sharpest line in Marsha Norman's libretto, based on Robert James Waller's swooning smash romance novel. You may recall that Waller's book also inspired a 1995 film: On screen, Clint Eastwood — then in his 60s, and also the director — played Robert Kincaid, who, while on assignment for National Geographic in the mid-1960s, meets Meryl Streep's Francesca Johnson, an Italian war bride turned vaguely discontented middle-aged matron, whose husband and kids happen to be away for a few days.
In the musical, for which Norman teamed with composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown, Robert is younger — between 40 and 50, the text indicates, roughly the same age as in the novel. Steven Pasquale, who plays him at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, where Bridges opened Thursday, is still a few years shy of that. Though Francesca has also shed some years, and is portrayed by the ravishing Kelli O'Hara, it's Pasquale who is proffered as the show's rugged eye candy. From the moment he first strides through the aisle in a torso-hugging shirt, his voice and gestures underline the unbridled virility that's destined to pull the repressed Francesca out of her shell.
This is not to mock Pasquale's performance, which is technically impressive and shows at least flickers of nuance. As the cliches pile up, you feel for him, and for O'Hara, and their director, Bartlett Sher, whose credits include some of the most compelling stagings of American classics in recent years (including the 2008 revival of South Pacific in which O'Hara memorably starred).
They are burdened, after all, not only with the sentimentality of Bridges' premise, but with supporting contrivances such as Francesca's dull, inexplicably suspicious husband, called Bud, and a nosy but goodhearted neighbor, Marge, who uses binoculars to peer into Francesca's home. (Marge and Bud are respectively, and gamely, played by Cass Morgan and Hunter Foster.)
Yet there are glimmers of emotional resonance and beauty in Bridges. Brown's score generally mixes pseudo-operatic meandering with soft-rock banality — an ersatz folk tune crooned by Robert's ex-wife, a Joni Mitchell wannabe who turns up briefly, is especially irksome — but it provides a few affecting showcases for his vocally supple leading couple.
The closing number, Always Better, a wistfully melodic reflection on different kinds of love and sacrifice, is best. Rendered by O'Hara's luminous soprano, the song makes the instant and enduring bond between two strangers' souls more credible, and moving, than anything in the more than two hours preceding it.
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.