Although it’s based on a bestselling novel that was made into a widely seen film, The Bridges of Madison County is hardly your typical 21st-century musical. It’s quieter, more serious, less frenetic and more thoughtful than any other musical currently on Broadway. It isn’t aimed at kids, there’s no dancing, and it isn’t over-amplified. Jason Robert Brown’s score showcases violins and acoustic guitars instead of synthesizers, and the melodies often meander. The songs don’t always end with a big finish that cries out for applause. Some have a country twang, while others are lushly lyrical numbers that express the characters’ feelings.
Hats off to Brown and the rest of the creative team for making the kind of musical they wanted to make, without pandering to what middlebrow audiences might like. Marsha Norman (‘night, Mother) wrote the book, based on Robert James Waller’s bestselling 1992 novel. Director Bartlett Sher smoothly opened up the story to incorporate other Iowa farm folk without stealing focus from the romantic leads.
Those leads, Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale, are the main reasons to see the show. O’Hara plays Francesca, an Italian war bridge who has been living on a 300-acre farm with her bland but decent husband Bud (Hunter Foster) and their two teenage kids, Michael (Derek Klena) and Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen). It’s 1965, and when her family is away at a county fair Francesca gets an unexpected visitor. Robert (Pasquale), a handsome National Geographic photographer, stops by for directions to the covered bridges. Francesca is initially just courteous, but before long the pair have started a torrid love affair. It’s so intense that she must decide whether to leave her family or deprive herself of newly rediscovered passion.
O’Hara’s Italian accent sounds a bit odd at first, and even with dark hair she doesn’t really look Italian. But thanks to the force of her singing and her unshowy, earnest acting, O’Hara makes a convincing and compelling Francesca. Robert is somewhat less well defined. About all we know is that he’s a loner who travels often for work. He’s called a hippie but doesn’t look like one. He’s mostly defined by his work and his love for Francesca.
Many of Brown’s songs are pleasantly melodic but not exactly memorable. The first-act finale “Falling into You,” however, is a rousing, stirringly romantic tune that brings out the best in O’Hara’s soaring soprano and Pasquale’s bright, strong tenor. As the saying goes, the two make beautiful music together. They also have palpable chemistry and make a very handsome couple. Pasquale was the original Fabrizio opposite O’Hara in The Light in the Piazza, and last year they co-starred in Far From Heaven. The pair’s past experiences together may explain why they look – and sound – so right together.
As Bud, Foster does his best to act like a regular-Joe farmer; his good-ol’-boy accent is a little thicker than necessary. He sings well in his few numbers, especially “Something from a Dream.” Brown’s songs are nicely varied, ranging from traditional, string-heavy Broadway fare to country tunes. “Get Closer” sounds like it could be an old Patsy Cline hit. It’s a nice solo for Cass Morgan, who plays Francesca’s neighbor Marge; she seems to be just a nosy neighbor but turns out to be a good friend.
The musical as a whole deals in subtle shadings rather than black and white. Francesca’s romance may be wrong, but she’s also rediscovering a part of herself that she thought she’d lost forever. Bridges boasts a lovely score and two attractive, talented actors who have the powerful pipes to do it justice. Waller’s novel has sold a whopping 50 million copies, and Meryl Streep won acclaim as Francesca in the 1995 movie. The new musical may be a bit too highbrow to be a runaway hit, but it certainly deserves to run for a while and give O’Hara another shot at a Tony Award.