The Bridges of Madison County, the new musical based on the best-selling novel of the same name, is different from many recent Broadway shows. The production does not have a cacophonous introduction, an intricately plotted book, a razz-ma-tazz score, or high-stepping dance numbers. Instead, The Bridges of Madison County is a quieter, subtler musical with strongly defined central characters the audience slowly comes to know and embrace. The show stars one of the consummate Broadway musical actresses of today, Kelli O’Hara, in a performance far different from her more exuberant roles over the past few years—Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, Babe Williams from The Pajama Game, or Billie Bendix in Nice Work If You Can Get It. Here, as Francesca, an Italian immigrant war bride living with her American husband on an Iowa farm in the mid-1960’s, O’Hara displays an inner strength and determination which propels the poignant and sentimental story.
The plot, for those who haven’t read the multi-million selling book or the movie, which starred Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, is simple. Francesca’s husband (Hunter Foster) and two children are off to the state fair, leaving her at home alone. Later in the day a stranger wonders onto her property who, it turns out, is a National Geographic photographer named Robert (Steven Pasquale) looking for directions in order to take pictures of the covered bridges in Madison County. Her initial thought is to provide assistance and say goodbye, but she is attracted to the lean, hulking figure and volunteers to personally lead him. From there, a spark is kindled and blossoms into a full-fledged affair.
While Kelli O’Hara is the ying, Steven Pasquale, making his Broadway musical debut, is the yang to the passionate coupling. Handsome and charismatic, he exudes a quiet resoluteness and vulnerability that draws him to Francesca as well as to the audience. The chemistry between the two comes across as genuine which, for this type of show, is critical.
Hunter Foster as Francesca’s husband, Bud, is his usual dependable self. As with his recent roles in Hands on a Hard Body and Million Dollar Quartet Foster, once again, demonstrates that he is a steady, reliable performer on the Broadway stage. Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin, playing the older, next door couple, Marge and Charlie, provide some welcome comic relief. The married twosome also serve as an interesting counterpoint of an established, comfortably established husband and wife to the impassioned and lustful couple in the farm house just down the way.
The book by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Marsha Norman, is well-structured, tenderly humorous, and romantic without being too maudlin or overly mawkish.
The score by Jason Robert Brown is lush, stirring and beautifully set within the musical. These are not the type of songs that will have much life outside the context of the show, but are haunting and exquisite nonetheless. I could not imagine a different grouping of ballads and plaintive numbers then what Brown has written.
Director Bartlett Sher, working from a minimally adorned stage, keeps the focus on the two protagonists. He smartly and delicately builds the momentum of the story, slowly at first, until the inevitable romance begins. Sher imbues the few scenes of Francesca talking with her husband over the phone with pathos and genuine confusion for both, sometimes with very little being exchanged between them. The end of the production, which could collapse into a warmed-over mess is, instead, handled with sensitivity and aplomb.
The Bridges of Madison County, a more understated, but worthwhile musical, now on Broadway.