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A CurtainUp Review
The Bridges Of Madison County
By Elyse Sommer
Cynics called the book it a romantic pot boiler and made fun of its often purple prose. But the four day love affair between Francesca Johnson, an Italian-American farm wife and Robert Kincaid touched the romantic heart of enough readers to become a mega best seller that remained on the New York Times Best seller list for three years, and continues to have substantial sales. The story of a rugged but sensitive cowboy type who comes riding into an Iowa farm community in an old Chevrolet pickup truck with a camera instead of a gun and finds an instant soul mate in the Italian born farm wife whose family is conveniently off at the State Fair was irresistible for all but the most hard-headed pragmatists.
The movie adaptation starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep was also a hit. Eastwood, who directed as well as co-starred, was credited for turning the hokey novel into cinematic art, though the film too had its critical naysayers, one of whom summed it up as "sentimentalized coitus."
Now Bridges of Madison County has taken on yet another life as a musical. It is still the story of a love affair about two sensitive people who, per the first act's passionate finale, "fall into each other" but who must part, if the fantasy is to endure before the reality of coupledom and aging sets in. The book and film's framework has been altered by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Marsha Norman to expand the scope of the story so that it works as a big Broadway show. And so it does — thanks to Robert Jason Brown's beautifully orchestrated lush and lovely score, and a cast with powerful vocal chops headed by Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale, both of whom are considerably younger than Eastwood and Streep.
Ms. Norman book does make for a more full-bodied production and Bartlett Sher has astutely translated her vision into a smoothly staged musical. But the changes in the libretto come at a price. Bringing in Francesca's family and community, and even people from hers and Robert's past (her Italian fiance who was killed in World War II, his ex-wife) into the central narrative shifts the fsocus away from the star-crossed lovers who are the big draw here,. What's more the towns people though serving as a melodic chorus, never rise above being mere human props.
Being New York based, I was not allowed to review the show's Broadway-bound previews in Williamstown. However, I did see that production and I'm happy to report that the fine tuning, trimming and cast changes have all been on the mark though I'm hesitant to predict that they've made The Bridges of Madison County more likely to join the ranks of other popular musicals set in middle American farm communities (State Fair, The Music Man, Pajama Game).
The chances of this happening would have been better if the streamlining had included ditching the State Fair scene at the top of the second act which still feels like it belongs in another show; also if the libretto included at least a couple of songs with the stick-to-the-ears punch of a breakout show tune. Though Brown's score sounds even richer than ever on a second hearing and several of the most soaring ballads have the audience burst into applause like true show stoppers, none have the stick-to-the-ears punch of a breakout show tune.
But why dwell on shortcomings when there's much here to make this satisfying musical theater outing whether or not you're a fan of the book, the movie or romantic fantasies in general. Despite my comment about Brown's score not being the stuff of memorable show tunes, it's hypnotically beautiful. His arrangements for a small orchestra consisting of piano, violin/viola, cello, bass and drums are natural and never jarring. And his lyrics, while not without their share of over-heated lines, do move the story forward.
Elena Shaddow was an impressive stand-in for the then pregnant Kelli O'Hara at Williamstown. However, it's great to see O'Hara reunited with Steven Pasquale (the appeared in an early production of Light in the Piazza and another WTF-to-Broadway transfer, Far From Heaven. Especially, since Bridges. . . gives both more opportunity to showcase their superb vocal chops. Their "Falling Into You" and "Always Better" duets at the end of each act are exquisite, as is his "It All Fades Away" finale. If O'Hara's Italian accent is hardly the last word in authenticity, it's at least consistent throughout.
A major cast change that works in the Broadway production's favor is Hunter Foster as Francesca's husband Bud. Foster, a seasoned musical theater performance (yes, he's Sutton's brother!) brings out the nuts and bolts characteristics of the hardworking, emotionally restrained farmer. Yet in "Something From a Dream" he lets us see that beneath that impatient, exterior is a decent, kind man who still considers himself lucky to have persuaded the beautiful girl in war-torn Naples to share his life. Luckily for Foster, he was spared singing "God Smiles down on the Family" which was wisely dropped during the Williamstown run. His Southern twang may be authentic for that part of Iowa, but it did have me wondering why neither the kids or the neighbors Marge (Cass Morgan) and Charlie (Michael X. Martin) talked like him.
With or without accents, Marge and Charlie are the two really vivid towns people. Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin are terrific as Francesca's neighbors who see more than they should but handle that knowledge with tact and humor. Besides providing comic relief, both have a chance to shine as singers. For Morgan and a radio singer ensemble Brown wrote the lively "Get Closer." Charlie leads off one of the show's best songs, "When I'm Gone."
Bartlett Sher and his design team have created the aura of time and place quite effectively. Set designer Michael Yeargan's set for the Johnson home is backed by Donald Holder's evocatively lit scenic images. Various furniture pieces and walls slide and are pushed on and off stage by the ensemble members. Catherine Zuber's costumes evoke the 60's era. Though in this day and age a love scene would surely have O'Hara and Pasquale wear nothing in the bed scenes, you don't really need Robert to take off his jeans or Francesca to bare her bosom with "Falling Into You" to stir the imagination.
As I did in Williamstown, I found the cast doubling as prop movers distracting, especially since it happens too often. Besides the very visible neighbors, the less openly positioned ensemble members seems intended to underscore the libretto's focus on how in a small community like this even lovers can never really forget their surroundings. Praiseworthy too is the way the characters are brought on stage as they are mentioned in a song. This works well for Whitney Bashor's brief surreal appearance as Robert's ex-wife Marian and the flashback to Francesca's life in Naples that led to her marrying Bud.
Since the story is really over once Francesca has, as we know she will, put her family obligation before passion, the book writer and director have smartly conflated the next twenty-four years into a few potent Thornton Wilder flavored scenes. These are accompanied by Charlie, Bud and the Company's heart wrenching "When I'm Gone." Unsurprisingly, the end comes with a get-out-your handkerchief return to the Covered Bridge that brought Francesca and Robert together.
Though this musical, probably won't match the super hit success of the Waller book, it's kind of nice to allow yourself to get hooked into the tender-hearted romance of two very decent people. They may not have the risque appeal of the book industry's current super money maker about a decidedly untender pair in 50 Shades of Grey. But that leaves it to Francesca and Robert to satisfy the fantasy dreams of those who find full frontal tenderness erotic.