The root of the word musical is music. Everybody knows that. But the word that stands in the shadows of the root word is good. Songs crammed into a book does not a musical make. Fortunately, “The Bridges of Madison County” doesn’t suffer from that problem.
“The Bridges of Madison County” originated as a novel written by Robert James Waller and published in 1992. It stayed on the “New York Times” best-seller list for three years. In 1995, it was adapted to a movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep as Robert Kincaid and Francesca Johnson, the main characters. The film was equally as commercially successful as the novel garnering an Academy Award Best Actress nomination for Streep.
The plot of “The Bridges of Madison County” centers on two lonely people that find comfort and true love in one another during a four-day long affair that each carries with them for the rest of their lives. Robert Kincaid is an aloof photojournalist working for “National Geographic.” Francesca Johnson is an Italian war bride that was looking for an escape when she married her husband Richard and settled with him in a farming town in Iowa. Richard takes their teenage children, Michael and Carolyn, to a state fair leaving Francesca alone when Robert pulls up in her driveway. He was sent on assignment to photograph the covered bridges in the area and was lost. He asks Francesca for directions to the Roseman Covered Bridge. She shows him how to get there and the two hit it off. The chemistry between them is palpable and after a conversation and dinner the pair begins an affair. Realizing each other is the love they had been waiting for; they contemplate sharing their lives together. Francesca decides that she can’t abandon her family, so the two separate and never see each other again.
“The Bridges of Madison County” the film is the quintessential chick flick for an evening in with your spouse or a girl’s get together. The musical adaptation of this story is no exception. In fact, the music and lyrics of composer Jason Robert Brown only amplifies its beauty. The longing and vulnerability that Francesca masks is fully exposed in Kelli O’Hara’s performance. She was joy to watch in “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” the pleasure of seeing her on stage increased triple-fold after seeing her in this production. Her voice is lovely and the score makes good use of her range. After seeing Steven Pasquale walk on stage from the audience, I could see why Francesca’s locked desires were released. He makes for a much sexier Robert Kincaid than Clint Eastwood. There is no one in the audience that couldn’t understand why Francesca was close to jetting off into the sunset with him. The synergy O’Hara and Pasquale created onstage was complimented by the score as the two created wonderful harmony together. In this adaptation the music is the third member of this love triangle and the scrumptious singing of O’Hara and Pasquale makes the audience want to root for their romance. Hunter Foster has a sturdiness to him that makes him perfect for the no-nonsense, all-American fellow. Once again he excels in his portrayal of Bud (Richard). For me the breakout performance is delivered by Cass Morgan who plays Marge, the nosey neighbor with a heart of gold. Her solo of “Get Closer” was the hit of the night.
It’s delightful to see a new musical with a score like this keeping the future of the American musical alive with vibrant energy. However there are a few components of “The Bridges of Madison County” that fell short. One was the lack of choreography. When it comes to musicals I believe music and choreography are what make a musical number and assist in driving the book forward. There is only one number in this production that has choreography, and while the music is stimulating, the lack of movement makes the entire show somewhat incomplete. Also, throughout the musical the extras are present on stage, sitting in chairs quietly observing. But from time to time they are moving about, assisting with moving the set around. At first I was unsure they were just there to move the set or if their presence had a more artistic meaning. The optimist in me hopes for the latter, for if not the extras would be an awkward solution to the issue of changing the set and its props. But these are just minor glitches that can be overlooked when one hears the incredible score and the great chemistry of O’Hara and Pasquale. All and all “The Bridges of Madison County” is a bridge worth coming to.
Photos: Joan Marcus