What a lovely surprise! I wasn't originally planning to see THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. I'm a fan of Jason Robert Brown and of many of the leading performers, but I just couldn't see paying Broadway prices to see an adaptation of a book I had no interest in reading and a movie I had no interest in seeing. Fortunately my husband talked me into seeing the musical and reasonably priced tickets were available on TDF. It's a lovely show on all counts. Jason Robert Brown's rich score is varied and beautifully supported by his rich orchestrations (all strings with piano and drums), Marsha Norman's book tells the story well and Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale are the contemporary theater's best singing romantic leads. We all know how good O'Hara is but Pasquale sounds as good as he looks. What a voice! THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY is a love story and, as they must, the music and the singing come close to the powerful emotional force of opera.
The story is a simple one. Naples born Francesca (Kelli O'Hara) met and married an American soldier who then took her to his Iowa farm where she has spent the past twenty years. Her husband (the always good Hunter Foster) adores her and she has been a dutiful wife who has never felt the same love for him. She has raised two teenage children (Derek Klena and Caitlin Kinnunen) who are devoted to her. Francesca knows something is missing from her life, something she may never have. Enter Robert (Steven Pasquale), a sexy roving photographer for National Geographic Magazine who has come to take pictures of old covered bridges in the area. Francesca and Robert are immediately drawn to each other, have a brief affair while Francesca's family is off at the State Fair and separate when the family returns. Duty trumps passion. This is a very romantic tale that requires belief in love at first sight. We have to accept that Francesca and Robert feel something more than sexual desire -- that this is an abiding love neither of them has felt before, a contrast to her comfortable, passionless marriage. Brown's rich melodies beautifully sung allow us to buy into this fantasy.
Bartlett Sher has wisely given THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY a simple production with skeletal sets against projected landscapes. We're always aware of the remoteness of the setting, but of the proximity of the sweet but nosy neighbors. There's no dancing, but graceful movement of people and scenic elements.
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY is really a chamber musical. The only important characters are our two lovers and Francesca's family. It falters a bit when it opens out to non-essential scenes with the neighbors or at the state fair. It would be better as a shorter show that kept its focus on the important characters. The bickering between Francesca's children and their father is not as important as their relationship to her. Unfortunately, the economics of Broadway do not favor intimate shows, so I think there was some pressure to make BRIDGES bigger than it needed to be to please a Broadway audience. The show is about Francesca and our focus should never be taken away from her. This is a minor cavil that should not keep one away from this thoroughly enjoyable show.
There were rows of empty seats in the mezzanine at our performance. This is truly sad. THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY has the most beautiful score of any of the Broadway musicals now running, wonderful performances from Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale, a fine supporting cast and a visually lovely production. Why isn't it a hit? Yes, the major critics were lukewarm, though not dismissive. It suffers from being a musical for grown ups -- isn't that sad? ALADDIN sells out and a show like this founders. There isn't any razzamatazz or spectacle, which is what many folks want for their $100 plus dollars. There has to be a place for a beautiful show like this, but perhaps in this day and age the commercial theatre isn't the place. By the way, there are twenty-four producers listed above the title in the Playbill -- twenty-four individuals and organizations to mount a lovely, simple show.
I'm so glad I was talked into going to THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. I highly recommend it. You'll be able to get good seats at the half-price booth or through playbill.com or broadwaybox -- or better yet through tdf. It's well worth seeing. Most important, it's more than well worth hearing Brown's songs sung magnificently.
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. March 27, 2014.