By: David Sheward **1/2
Robert James Waller’s novella The Bridges of Madison County is an icon of low culture, a trashy romance, and a smashing popular success. A bestseller in 1994 a
nd a hit movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood in 1996, the property was reviled by most critics as sentimental claptrap but gobbled up by the masses. The story is thin and trite, but does it work as a Broadway musical? Book-writer Marsha Norman has fleshed out what is essentially a two-character piece, and songwriter Jason Robert Brown has composed a lush and memorable score, yet, as written, this is still a Bridge too far.
Fortunately, director Barlett Sher has created a fluid and moving production, and Kelli O’Hara brings quivering life and a soaring voice to the cliché-ridden leading role.
Italian-born Iowa housewife Francesca is bored with her decent but dreary husband, Bud, who rescued her from poverty-stricken Palermo during World War II. While Bud and their two teenagers are off to the state fair for four days, Francesca meets and falls in love with National Geographic photographer Robert not long after he asks her for directions to one of the bridges of the title. After a candlelit dinner, dancing to the radio, jumping in bed, and a clandestine daytrip to Des Moines, they vow to run away together. But Francesca forgoes happiness and sexual ecstasy to stay on the farm and keep her kids on the right path. Isn’t she noble and tragic? Robert keeps a torch for her for decades until his death and he sends her a teary final letter, which she reads as the curtain falls. Isn’t he just as noble and tragic?
To alleviate the ridiculousness of Waller’s story, Norman has created an extended community for Francesca to inhabit. Now instead of just the two lovers canoodling in the kitchen, the entire town and figures from their pasts are hanging around amid the vegetables and silverware. With the aid of Michael Yeargan’s breakaway set and Donald Holder’s shifting lighting, Sher places figures from the couple’s imagination to horn in on their liaison. The effect varies the action but doesn’t contribute much otherwise. We learn that Francesca’s neighbors are a helpful lot when the crops fail, but not much else. Same for Robert’s ex-wife, who shows up to sing a Joni Mitchell-style ballad (beautifully delivered by Whitney Bashor), which doesn’t reveal much information about their relationship.
O’Hara, a Broadway headliner who has reinvented established roles in South Pacific and The Pajama Game, pours passion, regret, and intensity into Francesca. Her opening number "To Build a Home," in which she describes the character’s odyssey from war-torn Italy to safe but flat Iowa, becomes a complex and moving aria, supported by Brown’s beautiful violin-rich orchestrations. Steven Pasquale has the necessary silver tenor and hunky physique to portray Richard as her love-object, but he lacks dramatic weight and comes across as a boyish drifter rather than the serious lover for whom Francesca would abandon everything. Cass Morgan does quite a bit with the nosy but caring neighbor Marge, giving a whole life to a throwaway role. She, O’Hara, and Brown make this a Bridge worth crossing, but there’s a toll of excess sentiment you’ll have to pay.
Opened Feb. 20 for an open run. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue 7pm, Wed 2pm & 8pm, Thu 7pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 3pm. Running time 2 hours and 40 minutes, including intermission. $59-149. (212) 239-6200. www.telecharge.com
Photo: Joan Marcus