New York City Theater
"The Bridges of Madison County"
At first, the sound of a mournful cello. Enter Francesca, an Iowa farmwife yearning to counter her drab routine. “You build a home piece by piece,” she tells us. “But for 18 years it stays the same.” Enter Robert, a handsome stranger who can provide just such an escape. It’s a familiar situation of the studly savior, resurrected in “The Bridges of Madison County,” the hugely popular weepie by Robert James Waller (filmed with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood) that has been turned into a lovely, endearing but thin and strangely unmoving musical.
With fluid direction by Bartlett Sher, an efficient libretto by Marsha Norman and a rich opera-like score by Jason Robert Brown, the show aims to be more than a sappy Harlequin romance. When the incandescent Kelli O’Hara as restless housewife Francesca, an Italian war bride, connects with empathetic Steven Pasquale as rootless, worldly Robert, the musical goes beyond romance into a realm where the couple seems to exist on a rarefied plane.
“Bridges” focuses on an initially reluctant relationship that becomes one written in the stars that appear so propitiously on a scenic backdrop. No longer are these two people embroiled in pure lust. “Sometimes you can feel that time becomes unreal,” says one.
Surrounding them, and interrupting the flow, is a passel of neighbors curious about the goings-on in the Iowa farmhouse. Chief among these is the understanding Marge (a wry Cass Morgan) who lives next door with her husband (an amusing Michael X. Martin), using binoculars to spy.
Director Sher’s use of the townsfolk comes across as peripheral: they distractingly move scenery and furniture and peer in doors and windows, to no payoff. Yet Sher also manages more subtle, less heavy-handed moments: a hand brushed on an arm, a chair held out, delicacy and shyness that erupt into the tension and eroticism of forbidden love.
But the evening is neither particularly touching nor even frightening in intensity, despite the very real chemistry between O’Hara and Pasquale. Those who don’t know the novel or film may wonder if Francesca will leave home, hubby and kids to run away with Robert, the National Geographic correspondent who’s arrived to photograph the title bridges. Or will she return to her wifely and motherly duties to nurse her husband, Bud, through illness and watch her children grow up?
Certainly, hot-blooded O’Hara and Pasquale exude enough sensuousness to root for their eventual getting together. And they’re given soaring, wistful songs -- “Falling Into You,” “Almost Real,” “It All Fades Away,” “Always Better” – to chart their feelings.
“We mustn’t reduce this to something simple,” says one of the lovers. Aiming for the heart, not the head, the skin deep “Bridges” hits its mark. The show is more Saturday Evening Post than the New Yorker but, given such stars and songs, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
-- David A. Rosenberg
March 17, 2014