The attributes of The Bridges of Madison County, the new musical at the Schoenfeld, are vibrant and most welcome: the strong singing/acting performances of Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale; the score from Jason Robert Brown, at his lushest and most radiant; and. . . well, the performances of O'Hara and Pasquale. Here we have a musical which in its finest moments offers the sort of robustly romantic Broadway-style singing--and writing--that brings to mind such treasures as Carousel and The Most Happy Fella. Those shows, when mounted properly, offer emotional peaks and climaxes so effective that there's not a dry eye in the house. In Bridges of Madison County, when romance goes asunder and the sympathetic lovers are forced apart, we sit there stonefaced, with nary a wet eye in the house. At least, not where I was sitting. You enjoy the wonderful performances and the numerous soaring ballads, frustrated that this exceptional work isn't contained in a more workable musical.
Bridges is based on the sentimental 1992 novel by Robert James Waller that overtook the best-seller lists and went on to become a hit 1995 movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. So successful it was that even those audience members who never read it, and never saw it, are likely to go in knowing that the show is about a lonely Midwestern housewife who has an affair with a visiting photographer on assignment, shooting the scenic bridges of Madison County.
Francesca (O'Hara)--who grew up in atmospheric Napoli with dreams of living in a flat in Sienna--ends up land-locked on 300 acres in middle-of-nowhere Iowa, having fled bombed-out Italy after World War II with a G.I. husband. The action starts in 1965, eighteen years later. Husband Bud (Hunter Foster) is a decent-enough fellow, but Francesca understandably feels stranded among the corn and cattle. When Bud takes the squabbling teenagers off to the "Steer of the Year" competition at the Indiana State Fair, Robert Kincaid (Pasquale) immediately comes knocking at the door asking for directions to one of those famous covered bridges. Some enchanted evening you will see a stranger across a crowded field of alfalfa.
But then these two start singing--eleven glorious songs! gloriously sung over the show's two-plus hours. Heartfelt songs, emotion-filled and offering keen insight into the characters. Mr. Brown has had a bumpy career locally, starting with his intriguing Parade in 1998 but followed by quick failures (The Last Five Years, Urban Cowboy and 13). Talent has been apparent in everything he's written, but mostly with something of a forced nature. Brown turned a corner last fall with the New Jersey tryout of the highly entertaining Honeymoon in Vegas, which will presumably reach Broadway next season. With Bridges of Madison County, he shakes off whatever shackles he formerly had; he still writes with his accustomed skill, but now the songs come from the heart and connect to the heart of the listener.
The trouble comes not from the core of the musical but from the fleshing out of the adaptation. About twenty minutes in, Francesca mentions that the folks in Iowa all care about each other. Suddenly, on comes Bud with a crowd of ten, singin' about how they helped old Bob Hansen when his crops went down. Right there smack in the middle of the kitchen, interrupting the developing love story with folksy farmer stuff. The show starts to falter.
Thereafter Bud keeps reappearing, squabbling with his kids at the big fair, singin' a country song or two, and pestering Francesca with phone calls. "Franny," he calls her. Or we get a big ol' hootenanny with some girl band singer singin' about fillin' up the pickup and taking it out on State Road 21. Or trite musical comedy stuff from a couple of musical comedy neighbors. (Country Wife: If you went away for a week and I spent the whole time in bed with a photographer, would you be mad? Henpecked Country Husband: You'd have your reasons. I mean, look at me.) There is even a slot where Kincaid's ex-wife comes on, sits in a chair and sings a ballad while the stars--and the story--just stand around and wait. "Another Life" ranks among Brown's best songs of the evening, yes, but it comes at the expense of our emotional investment in Francesca and Robert.
Compounding the trouble is a detrimental staging concept. When the famed covered bridge appears, it is not a bridge nor is it covered. Just planks of wood and fencing, erected before our eyes by the ensemble. Thereafter they frequently reappear, laboriously constructing not-very-substantial scenery; there is one scene where they swoop in with four skeletal storefront doors, line them across the apron, and then twirl them upstage to form downtown. Somebody--director Bartlett Sher, one supposes--decided to make the ensemble an integral part of the physical look of the show. They even sit on chairs ranged against the portals, "watching" the scenes with Francesca and Robert like bored understudies.
The fleshing out with subsidiary comedy scenes--and the use of the ghostly ensemble as scenery builders--was no doubt carefully conceived by Brown, librettist Marsha Norman, and Sher. It works against the show, though, harming it more and more with each interruption and deadening the beauties of the score and the stars. (The scenery itself, designed by Michael Yeargan and lit by Donald Holder, is just right and otherwise highly effective.)
We are accustomed to Ms. O'Hara giving good performances, as she has in Light in the Piazza, South Pacific, Far from Heaven and elsewhere. Here she plays against type--a darkly moody Italian instead of the perky blonde--and does so with great authority. Pasquale has been a hidden musical theatre secret; he appeared in the tryout of Light in the Piazza and was cast as Lt. Cable in South Pacific, but in both cases television commitments interfered. Bridges demonstrates that he is a top leading man in the John Raitt vein, even if this marks his Broadway singing debut.
A trip to Madison County is well worth while; Broadway rarely sees two such wonderful singing performances, and things are mighty incandescent when Mr. Brown's love songs are being sung. How discouraging that the rest of the enterprise dulls what might have been glorious.