The Bridges of Madison County, Robert James Waller’s flowery, if vapid, romantic novel of love among the cornstalks, spent over a year atop best-seller lists in the early nineties and launched casting discussions that hadn’t been so rabid since Vivien Leigh donned the corsets of Scarlett O’Hara. But it was that 1995 film, starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep in an alchemical adaptation from Richard LaGravanese, that suddenly turned this into a story of merit. More than two decades later, the ballad of Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid has been given a third life, as a stage musical. Director Bartlett Sher’s production, which opened at the Gerard Schoenfeld Theater after a run last summer in the Williamstown Theater Festival, works hard to equal the success of its stellar film predecessor, and if it falls short of that challenging mission, well, at least the company is able to achieve a happy medium.
Part of the reason for this is that book writer Marsha Norman – Puiltzer Prize-winner for the wrenching ‘night, Mother and a Tony-Winning adapter of The Secret Garden musical – has gone back to the book to carve out a new story that takes into greater account the lives of some of the other Winterset, Iowa inhabitants and makes her leading characters younger. This is to the benefit of an audience who gets to experience the multiple talents and beauty possessed by leads Kelli O’Hara and Stephen Pasquale (previously seen onstage together in an early version of The Light in the Piazza and just last summer at Playwrights Horizons’ Far From Heaven). Both performers are in great voice, but in de-aging these two lovebirds, Bridges’ stakes have been rather fundamentally lowered.
Initially a story of a man’s last great stab at romance and a woman’s first attempt at self-actualization, Norman has envisioned her characters through a more modern prism. Robert, an itinerant freelance photographer on assignment to take shots of Iowa’s covered bridges, asks Francesca for directions almost immediately after she has wished her brood – husband Bud (Hunter Foster, compelling yet brusque) and kids Michael (Derek Klena) and Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) – well on their way to the state fair. It isn’t long before she joins him in his pick-up truck, and he, in turn, in her bed (if that’s a spoiler for anyone, you probably don’t read books or watch television).
Both have pasts, and against Michael Yeargan’s nimbly shifting backdrops and bolstered by Donald Holder’s often gauzy lighting design (Sher utilizes much of the team from his glorious South Pacific staging, which also starred O’Hara), we learn about them. But we do so unevenly. It’s as if Norman was so eager to fill in Francesca’s back story as an independent but romantic war bride in Naples that she felt no compulsion to give Robert an equal inner life. We learn he’s detached from his family and that he has an ex-wife (portrayed by Whitney Bashor during “Another Life”). And that’s it. It leaves Kincaid enigmatic – strong, stoic (but not a cowboy, as he makes great pains to declare) – but a mystery.
Luckily, Pasquale, a fantastic leading man, is able to supply a personality and establish plenty of chemistry with O’Hara, who impresses, although some of her gravitas feels more forced than it did when Elena Shaddow essayed the role of Francesca in Williamstown. But what the two share is a connection that comes from a different, later time – he’s sensitive, she’s empowered. Moreover, this show always seems to prefer its lovers to be apart rather than together. The highlights of composer Jason Robert Brown’s lush score, a fusion of operatic highs and more folksy, intimate vocals, come in the form of solos for its stars, such as Pasquale’s “It All Fades Away” or O’Hara’s “Almost Real” and “What Do You Call a Man.”
Sher, Norman, and the creative team’s smartest decision, however, is to open up Bridges’ vista to include the townspeople, represented by the wonderful Michael X. Martin and Cass Morgan as neighboring couple Charlie and Marge. She can’t stop prying on the adulterous couple, but she’s also there for Francesca, and these scenes tell us more about the climate of 1965 rural Iowa than anything else does. As the show nears its Our Town-evoking end, we finally get it. The Johnsons live in a land that is open enough where they can be seen at all times, but also big enough to create a jarring sense of solitude. It can be a threat and also a sense of comfort. While the central story is sweet but short-term love affair ran its course, rather than that the love of a lifetime is gone. That’s a bummer, but not a tragedy. But in the sidelines is a sweet message about the love of home and the fading power of community. That, this well-intentioned, occasionally discordant show teaches us, might just be the greatest love of all.
The Bridges of Madison County
Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, 236 West 45th Street. http://bridgesofmadisoncountymusical.com/
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