'The Bridges of Madison County': Theater Review

Bridges of Madison County Kelli O’Hara Steven Pasquale - P 2014
Joan Marcus

Bridges of Madison County Kelli O’Hara Steven Pasquale - P 2014

Accomplished lead performers and some stirring songs aside, the material and form here are an imperfect match.

Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale star as younger versions of the lovers played onscreen by Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood in this musical based on Robert James Waller's best-seller.

NEW YORK -- One of the works that put Jason Robert Brown on the map is The Last Five Years, a 2001 two-character chamber musical that deconstructs in microscopic detail the entirety of a relationship, from first encounter through marriage to breakup. A variation on that theme, this time chronicling just four whirlwind days of intense passion, is trapped inside the composer-lyricist's cluttered stage retelling of The Bridges of Madison County. Fussy direction and design choices and cumbersome book scenes crowd the central couple, but the gorgeous voices and thoughtful characterizations of Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale in those roles help counter the weaknesses of this problematic romantic musical.

The source material is Robert James Waller's 1992 novel, a kind of watered-down Anna Karenina in the lonely American Midwest, its tragedy confined to the heart. The slender melodrama chalked up stratospheric sales by fueling the fantasies of every suffocated housewife who ever dreamed of a ruggedly handsome Marlboro Man-type capable of seeing the sensuous, intelligent beauty behind the apron.

Adapted by Marsha Norman ('night, Mother, The Color Purple) and directed by Bartlett Sher, the Broadway musical casts its two ships in the night considerably younger than the 1995 screen version with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. That move heightens the sense of sacrifice and regret lingering for decades to come. But despite the power of song to convey transporting surges of feeling, film is arguably a better medium for the internal emotions of this type of drama.

There are nonetheless fine examples of musical storytelling in Brown's score, starting with the opening number, "To Build a Home," in which O'Hara's Francesca Johnson retraces her journey as a young war bride from Naples to a farm in the Iowa cornfields. While she sings with proud self-possession of her cultural assimilation and the family she nurtured in the 18 years since leaving Italy, a melancholy picture emerges of a woman who has surrendered an essential part of herself.

Her husband, Bud (Hunter Foster), and their teenage children Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Michael (Derek Klena) are out of town for a few days at the 1965 State Fair, leaving her to contemplate her solitude. That makes her responsive when National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Pasquale) saunters down her driveway, asking for directions to one of the covered bridges he's shooting on assignment for the magazine. With a failed marriage behind him, Robert has put up walls around himself, choosing to engage with the world only through his camera lens. But something about this woman's candor pierces his shell. A glass of iced tea together leads to a beer and then to dinner and to bed, opening up possibilities for which both of them are unprepared.

O'Hara and Pasquale (who starred together Off-Broadway last year in Far From Heaven) inhabit this sudsy core story with grace, emotional conviction and strong chemistry. And while Brown's lyrics are at times too literal, the characters express the overwhelming nature of their feelings for each other in beautiful solo songs as well as soaring duets.

Francesca's "Almost Real," about the life she dreamed of as a girl, offers particularly affecting insight into her character, and O'Hara's considerable vocal gifts have rarely been put to more exquisite use. Doing a creditable Italian accent, she brings earthy sensuality and sadness to the role that makes her entry into an adulterous situation seem less about the betrayal of a husband she loves than about the accidental rediscovery of a lost part of herself.

Robert is not a seducer but a soulful character who lets down his guard with great caution, and despite having no ties, his vulnerability puts him as much at risk as Francesca. There's a certain sameness to Pasquale's songs, but he performs them with sensitivity, pumping knockout vocal power into the show-stopping second-act duet, "One Second and a Million Miles."

The disappointment is pretty much everything else that's happening around these two characters. The cast is uniformly capable, but Norman's book spends too much time on Bud and the kids in tiresome family scenes that add little and dilute the central romance. We understand conflicted Francesca's deep investment in their lives without needing constant reminders.

There's warmth in Francesca's scenes with her neighbor Marge (Cass Morgan), a busybody who shows unexpected empathy. But the overstated emphasis on the community as both support system and all-seeing witness is distracting. Sher has the ensemble seated on the sidelines, like observers out of Our Town, or wandering across the stage at intervals, peering at the lovers, frequently while hauling some piece of Michael Yeargan's disharmonious set.

The designer has worked effectively with Sher in the past, showing a particular knack for peeling away elements to expose the dramatic heart of a situation. But his stylized approach feels at odds with this material. The director attempts to create a cinematic flow, with overlapping scenes of simultaneous action. However, the endless moving parts of the production make it seem merely busy and unfocused. The most evocative image is the single tree that dominates the set, bathed in Donald Holder's descriptive lighting and backed by the endlessly flat rural Iowa landscape.

Brown's score samples disparate styles, from heartland country flavors similar to last season's short-lived Hands on a Hardbody to more sophisticated melodies in the Stephen Sondheim vein. (A cello motif sounds like a steal from A Little Night Music; Robert singing about the light in a sweet, high tenor recalls the artist at work in Sunday in the Park with George.) Francesca's songs flirt at times with the operatic, with rhapsodic wordless embellishments from the ensemble that echo Adam Guettel's superior The Light in the Piazza. Strains of 1960s folk run through several numbers, notably "Another Life," performed by Whitney Bashor with phrasing and flute-like vocals that pay homage to Joni Mitchell.

Many of these songs are lovely, but they don't quite come together into a cohesive whole. Nor do they make a persuasive case that the intimate material was meant to be a musical -- at least not one on this scale.

Venue: Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)

Cast: Kelli O'Hara, Steven Pasquale, Hunter Foster, Michael X. Martin, Cass Morgan, Caitlin Kinnunen, Derek Klena, Whitney Bashor, Ephie Aardema, Jennifer Allen, Kevin Kern, Katie Klaus, Luke Marinkovich, Aaron Ramey, Dan Sharkey

Director: Bartlett Sher

Book: Marsha Norman, based on the novel by Robert James Waller

Music, lyrics and orchestrations: Jason Robert Brown

Set designer: Michael Yeargan

Lighting designer: Donald Holder

Costume designer: Catherine Zuber

Sound designer: Jon Weston

Music director: Tom Murray

Movement: Danny Melford

Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Stacey Mindich, Jerry Frankel, Gutterman Chernoff, Hunter Arnold, Ken Davenport, Carl Daikeler, Michael DeSantis, Aaron Priest, Libby Adler Mages/Mari Glick Stuart, Scott M. Delman, Independent Presenters Network, Red Mountain Theatre Company, Caiola Productions, Remmel T. Dickinson, Ken Greiner, David Lancaster, Bellanca Smigel Rutter, Mark S. Golub & David S. Golub, Will Trice, with Warner Bros Theatre Ventures, The Shubert Organization, in association with Williamstown Theatre Festival