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“The Bridges of Madison County,” well conceived musical that deserved a better fate on Broadway

Roy Berko

Some musicals are filled with flash, glitter, large production numbers and massive choruses.  “The Bridges of Madison County” is not one of these.  It is a well-conceived, tender, and low-keyed experience.  It is a “little” musical, much in the realm of “She Loves Me.

Adapted from the novel “The Bridges of Madison County,” by Robert James Waller, is a story  based on the author’s desire to expand on his belief that some people experience “a special love that happens just once in a lifetime—if you’re lucky.”

“I don’t want to need you, ’cause I can’t have you.” “I realize love won’t obey our expectations, its mystery is pure and absolute.” “Things change. They always do, it’s one of the things of nature.” “And in that moment, everything I knew to be true about myself up until then was gone. I was acting like another woman, yet I was more myself than ever before.” These lines, spoken by Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson, the script’s love-struck lovers, appear to be excerpted from a Harlequin romance novel.   But they aren’t.  They are part of a script that is exceedingly well-crafted, has a solid emotional foundation, a fine score and a meaningful libretto.

The story centers on Francesca, an Italian-American unfulfilled house wife, who met her husband-to-be while he was serving in Italy during World War II.  She is quickly swept off her feet, marries, and is whisked off to Iowa.  Flat, unexciting Iowa, very unlike her beloved Italy.  A place filled with corn and little culture, but good caring folks.

Unexpectedly, into Francesca’s  life wanders Robert Kincaid, a “National Geographic photographer, in the area to take photos of the renowned bridges of Madison County.  It’s the summer of 1965, and her husband and teenage children are at the Illinois state fair.  Robert is having difficulty finding one of the fabled structures, stops for directions at her family’s farm, and a tale of infidelity, love, unfulfilled experiences, and then the inevitable need to make a pivotal decision that will not only affect the lives of Francesca and Robert, but her entire family.

Those who read the best selling novel may be disappointed with the changes made in the staged version.  The musical is contracted and the ending changed to fit both the time restraints and cutting down on the Harlequin nature of the original material.  For those who have not read the book, the differences, of course, matter little.

Jason Robert Brown’s music is nicely tucked into and enhances Marsha Norman’s understated book.  The songs grow out of the story, not, as is often the case of musicals, placed in to highlight a character or change the mood.

The opening number, “To Build a Home,” lays the exposition for understanding the life and ways of Iowa.  “Home Before You Know It,” sets up Francesca’s being left alone while the rest of the family goes to the fair.  “Look at Me,” shows the blooming love between Robert and Francesca. “Falling Into You” brings their relationship to a climax. “Almost Real,” sets up the inevitable separation. “Always Better” brings the story to a forlorn ending.  The music and the book flow seamlessly together.

The staged production, under the deft direction of Bartlett Sher, is compelling.   Michael Yeargan’s fragmented sets move on and off the stage in a beautifully choreographed flow.  Donald Holder’s lighting design enhances the moods.  The orchestra sound is lush, and helps develop a clarity of mood in the songs, nicely underscoring the performers singing.

Kelli O’Hara (Francesca) and Steven Pasquale (Robert) have a wonderful chemistry that makes the joy of their meeting, and sadness of their parting, heartfelt.  They both posses fine singing voices, sing meanings not words, and create characters that live.

Seldom during most musicals, other than for preplanned showstoppers, do audiences respond with overly extended applause.  Not so in “Bridges.” So excellent is the music and the singing that four times during the production the audience showed extreme adoration for the performances by O’Hara and Pasquale.

Cass Morgan is delightful as Marge, Francesca’s next door neighbor.  Hunter Foster is totally believable as Francesca’s well meaning husband, Bud.  His “Something as a Dream,” is well sung.  Caitlin Kinnunen (Carolyn) and Derek Klena (Michael) are spot-on as the angst-filled Johnson teenagers who mature before our eyes.

Much to the dismay of many, and the frustration of this reviewer, in spite of four Tony Award nominations, including one for O’Hara as Best Actress in a Musical and Best Original Score, the producers of “The Bridges of Madison County,” announced that the show will close after the Sunday, May 18 staging, its 137th performance.

Why the early closing?  One of the issues may well we that this is a “little” show.  It doesn’t have the razzle-dazzle of a “Pippin,” the farcical underpinnings of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” nor the realistic depth of “Lady Day at Emerson’s.”  In a smaller, more intimate theatre, maybe an off-Broadway space, the show may have showcased better.  This is similar to last year’s charming “First Date,” which met a similar, shorter than it should have, run.

This is the type of script that will quickly be optioned by professional and non-professional theatres in the hinterlands, and have a long life.

Those theatres will have to wait, however, as the producers have announced that a touring production, under the direction of Sher, will be mounted for the Fall of 2015.

Capsule judgment:  “The Bridges of Madison County,” is one of those special, intimate, meaningful, well-conceived and performed shows that deserved a longer shelf-life than it is getting.  It will be interesting to see how the show runs on the road as a touring production.

“The Bridges of Madison County,” is running at the Gerald Shoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th Street, New York, through May 18, 2014.