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Review: The Bridges of Madison County

March 19th, 2014

Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler soars across the Midwestern plains of Iowa, courtesy of The Bridges of Madison County.

Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale in "The Bridges of Madison County" (photo: Joan Marcus) via The Broadway Blog.

Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale in “The Bridges of Madison County” (photo: Joan Marcus) via The Broadway Blog.

The flat plains of Winterset, Iowa are the backdrop for The Bridges of Madison County, a sweeping yet subtle new musical new playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on Broadway. Adapted for the stage by Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) and Marsha Norman (book) from the best-selling novel by Robert James Waller, it is a tale of love lost, love found, and love released.

Robert (played by Steven Pasquale), a photographer for National Geographic, finds himself lost trying to find a specific covered bridge for the magazine’s photo shoot and stumbles across Francesca (played by Kelli O’Hara)—a disenchanted housewife whose family has traveled to the Indiana State Fair. While it may not be love at first sight, it arrives shortly thereafter and the two find themselves enraptured in a four-day love affair that changes their lives forever.

Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale in "The Bridges of Madison County" (via The Broadway Blog).

Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale in “The Bridges of Madison County” (via The Broadway Blog).

While not heavy on external plot or conflict, Marsha Norman’s lean book drives the story forward while Jason Robert Brown delivers an emotionally resonant score with sweeping melodies, flecks of Francesca’s Italian roots, and subtle musical references of the era. But it is director Bartlett Sher, (South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza, and this season’s Two Boys at the Met) who gently cradles the material and creates a seamlessly shifting world that transcends time and locale.

In the spirit of Our Town and the Lars von Trier film Dogville, the ensemble is all hands on deck, shifting furniture, fences, doorways, tables, and even the kitchen sink… literally. Their watchful eyes observe Francesca and Robert’s love affair unfold. There is undoubtedly judgment in those stares, but that is left to the audience’s imagination.

At the epicenter of the action, O’Hara and Pasquale conjure up a believable attraction, but what each of them is attracted to is unclear. Beyond the physical lust, it’s hard to say what draws these two together. As Francesca, O’Hara emits a melancholy sadness as well as a self-knowing dark humor. While her vocal quality feels foggy at times set against Jason Robert Brown’s pop-melodic score, her journey tugs at anyone who has questioned their own happiness. Steven Pasquale, making his Broadway musical debut as Robert, delivers a performance of subtle humility yet aching desire. His bari-tenor voice fits snuggly in the pocket of Brown’s music as he richly delivers the 11 o’clock number, “It All Fades Away.”

Hunter Foster as Francesca’s husband, Bud, is dealt a short hand both in terms of storytelling and music, but he makes the most of it and finds humanity and humor in the man who can’t seem to retain Francesca’s love. And in a beautifully staged sequence, Whitney Bashor (Broadway debut) as Robert’s ex-wife Marian, channels Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez in flashback scene that, while not necessarily plot-driving, is a splash of watercolor on an evolving canvas.

Jason Robert Brown continues to establish himself as one of the great Broadway composers and orchestrators of the 21st century. The Bridges of Madison County is a testament to his evolution as an artist. Keep an eye out for the film version of his off Broadway hit, The Last Five Years, and his next Broadway show, Honeymoon in Vegas, arriving on Broadway this fall.

The Bridges of Madison County
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street
Open-ended run

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