BWW Reviews: Jason Robert Brown Goes Rapturously Romantic in THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY
With such diverse scores to his credit as Parade, The Last 5 Years, 13 and the presumably Broadway-bound Honeymoon In Vegas, Jason Robert Brown has established himself as among the most versatile musical theatre composer/lyricists of our time, developing a loyal following among those who like their book musicals thoughtful and intelligent, even when they rock out or sizzle with brass.
His newest, based on Robert James Wagner's novel The Bridges of Madison County, is like none of his previous scores, and yet it's like all of them; brimming with music and lyrics that clearly define characters.
Broadway has seen its share of musical romances gliding on lush, passionate melodies, but rarely do they embrace such literate, specific and well-crafted words. There are no clever rhymes or bits of wordplay to quote. Just straightforward and deep-minded simplicity textured by Brown's own emotion-pulling orchestrations.
Ravishingly sung by its two leading players, the musical's passionate peaks contrast with the guitar folk, honky-tonk and American anthem sounds that help define the supporting roles, clearly setting this as a musical centered on a woman struggling with the commitments that tie her to a world in which she'll never be truly happy.
The year is 1965 and that woman is Italian war bride Francesca, whose fiancé never returned from the fighting and, while still grieving, married American soldier Bud, who scooted her off to an Iowa farm where they lead a homespun life raising two children.
Bud is a hard-working devoted husband and father who would probably be considered quite the catch by many of the local ladies, but his interest in anything beyond his immediate world is limited and he's not exactly a poetry and romance kind of guy. Hunter Foster, whose Broadway career began as a boyish romantic juvenile, has been transitioning into a full-out dirt road character actor and his gutsy, gritty performance shows Bud as a good man in a world where good men aren't raised to be expressive about their emotions.
Getting her first chance to originate a leading Broadway role that takes full advantage of her thrilling soprano and serious acting range, Kelli O'Hara is heartbreaking as Francesca, a woman who battles her loneliness for her Naples home with her dutiful responsibility to be a mother to her children and wife to her husband.
With Bud and the kids away on a 4-day trip to the state fair, Francesca happens upon the man of her dreams when Robert, a photographer on assignment to snap shots of the local covered bridges, stops by to ask for directions. In the form of Steven Pasquale, Robert sure has the rugged good looks and finely-chiseled body that would make Francesca swoon (Broadway's recent trend of well-built men going shirtless is honored once again.) but they connect on a much deeper level, through their curiosity about the world and interests in art and cooking.
Robert also possesses the sensitivity Francesca craves, though at times it seems Pasquale is regulated to playing an ideal too good to be true. But when the two of them voice their passion and longings to Brown's words and music, Bridges reaches breathtaking musical and dramatic expression.
And as long as the musical stays focused on Robert and Francesca's 4-day affair, Marsha Norman's book stays sturdy and reliable. Where the show stumbles a bit is when the attention turns to Bud and their teenage kids, the rebellious Michael (Derek Klena) and the awkward Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen). Their scenes don't carry the sufficient amount of weight needed to make viewers seriously consider the gravity of Francesca's ultimate choice between her own happiness and the happiness of those who depend on her.
Scenes involving Francesca's nosey, but sincere, neighbor and her strong, silent husband hit too hard as comic relief, though Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin are both excellent. The best use of a secondary character comes when Robert's singer/songwriter ex-wife accompanies herself on guitar in front of an unseen audience, singing of their breakup. Whitney Bashor does a lovely job with the small role.
Director Bartlett Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan enhance the musical's theme of Francesca being inescapably part of a community by having ensemble members moving fences about to specify locations and letting characters observe her from onstage chairs. Characters promenading past the couple give insight as to who they're thinking about at key moments.
If The Bridges of Madison County has its storytelling flaws, none of that is evident when Jason Robert Brown's score takes over the proceedings. And while Kelli O'Hara has claimed musical theatre stardom for a good part of this young century, she finally has a proper Broadway showcase to display her artistry.