*published on 28 Feb 2014 on The EDGE
Valentine’s Day may have come and gone, but heartfelt schmaltz is in full-throated bloom in one of Broadway’s newest, musical offerings, “The Bridges of Madison County.” If soaring sounds, masterfully sung, yet backed up by a thin plot are your kind of diversion, then run to the Shoenfeld Theatre.
Many of us read Robert James Waller’s slim volume by the same name when it bowed in 1992, and then saw the movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. It was the tale of an Italian girl, Francesca, who became a war bride and traveled with her new husband back to his Iowa farm to build a family and a life there.
One weekend when Francesca’s husband and 4H kids are off at the County Fair a handsome stranger, a National Geographic photographer, comes sauntering into her life asking directions to the famed covered bridges of her county, Madison. What ensues is a sexually charged parenthesis inserted into a dulling life.
When the remarkable Kelli O’Hara in the role of Francesca sings the opening paean to Iowa, utilizing her flawless Italian accent and Jason Robert Brown’s heart-rending score, the entire theater was ready to buy a ticket to visit the enchanted kingdom of Iowa. And as the backdrop lit up to show rolling fields of grain, tiny silos and a spreading chestnut tree, we relaxed from the cold and began to bask in the warmth of heartland, story and the wizardry of music.
The story is yes, saccharine and as such one keeps wishing for the beleaguered housewife to run off with the hunk — perfectly embodied and sung to raise the roof beams, by Steven Pasquale — but alas, fealty wins. The laundry continues to be done and dinner materializes on the table. Kids grow and succeed and the photographer keeps calling his office to see if there are messages from his love. There never are.
Francesca’s farmer husband, well played and sung by Hunter Foster, passes away. The sad photographer is diagnosed with an illness and sends a mushy, posthumous letter to his love. It is sad. It is a litany of woulda, shoulda, coulda. But it is also beautiful.
It is Iowa and so there are folks milling around. The neighbors are nosey, but such fun as embodied by Cass Morgan and Martin X. Martin. And the teenage kids are annoying and very much of the time period, brought to life by Caitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena. There is an ensemble number belted out at the State Fair with rousing fiddles and kids smoking pot in the steer barn, but all of this felt like a distraction from the core energy and might be the fault of the book written by Marsha Norman who penned the stellar “Night Mother.”
There may be a bit too much zooming of the set, which is innovative and evocative, but perhaps it could have benefited from calmer scene changes where folks weren’t bringing in fences and staircases and building and dissembling bridges so, so often. The design by Michael Yeargan is strong; albeit a bit distracting.
And yet the lighting is perfect. It is ethereal and evocative. The caramel sticky, amber dusk helps seduce the lovers and the audience alike and Donald Holder should be singled out for his design work here.
Bartlett Sheer’s direction may have contributed to the sense of a lost core exemplified by the busy set changes and fluttering side scenes, superfluous to the main dish — the oh, so overheated affair.
Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale are stars in a firmament that is not overpopulated. They were both in “Light in the Piazza,” also directed by Sheer, though they were not in at the same time, and now they are united for this show. Their supremely well-matched voices, the energy and power they bring to the music often produces goosebumps and that is enough to send romantics out into the cold to see “Bridges of Madison County.” At least it should be.
“The Bridges of Madison County” enjoys an extended run at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street. For information or tickets, call 888-847-4869 or visit bridgesofmadisoncountymusical.com