Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 20, 2014
The Bridges of Madison County A New Musical. Book by Marsha Norman. Music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Based on the Novel by Robert James Waller. Directed by Bartlett Sher. Music Direction by Tom Murray. Movement by Danny Medford. Scenic design by Michael Yeargan. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Jon Weston. Hair & wig design by David Brian Brown. Orchestrations by Jason Robert Brown. Cast: Kelli O'Hara, Steven Pasquale, with Hunter Foster, Michael X. Martin, Cass Morgan, Caitlin Kinnunen, Derek Klena, Whitney Bashor, Ephie Aardema, Jennifer Allen, Charlie Franklin, Kevin Kern, Katie Klaus, Luke Marinkovich, Aaron Ramey, Dan Sharkey, Jessica Vosk, Tim Wright.
Okay, not everything. Though the two play illicit lovers, sharing a torrid four-day affair in 1965 Winterset, Iowa, they never fully disrobe. Pasquale takes off his shirt several times, the better to flaunt his well-cut torso, and O'Hara gets down to a (relatively) modest nightgown. But even when they're dressed head to toe, it's impossible for either costume designer Catherine Zuber or director Bartlett Sher to hide their natural, marquee-idol features, and you don't sense that either is especially interested in trying.
Not that there's nothing wrong with pretty people, mind you, especially when they're as prodigiously talented vocalists as O'Hara and Pasquale, provided their presence makes sense. But this pair raises all sorts of questions you get the impression you're just not supposed to ask. Such as why these two are tasked with acting out a tale of sexual repression when they don't look like they've been so repressed a day in their lives. Or how O'Hara, like Pasquale in her mid 30s but looking considerably younger, is expected to convince as a woman with two teenaged children.
These are not minor missteps, and they lead the way in ensuring that writers Marsha Norman (book) and Jason Robert Brown (score) fail well before O'Hara and Pasquale's characters ever do the deed. Waller's book and the movie, ideally cast with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, were intense examinations of socially forbidden passion on the cusp of the Sexual Revolution. When women everywhere were first finding their bodies and their libidos liberated, how could a staunch traditionalist not feel left out and left behind?
So when late-middle-aged housewife Francesca, an Italian war bride relocated to the Midwest, and National Geographic photographer Robert, traveling through the titular county to photograph its titular bridges, begin their fling, it's loaded with old worldversusnew, conservative-versus-liberal import. Whether this happy but unsatisfied woman canor, more appropriately, shouldgive up stability for what may be no more than a fly-by-night fancy is the provocative central issue.
Or at least it should be. Whereas the tension from Francesca's choice naturally derives from being torn between two (ostensibly) good options, and picking what feels right rather than what she's told is right, the musical does away with this. Instead, Francesca (O'Hara) does not face any tangible indecision when she takes up with Robert (Pasquale) while her family is out of town, trying to win a prize for a steer at the state fair. Norman and Brown have depicted her home life as one not worth saving.
Francesca's husband, Bud, is portrayed by Hunter Foster as a myopic, coarse, and disinterested redneck whose purity of heart is nonexistent compared to his wife. Sixteen-year-old son Michael (Derek Klena) is a loud, rebellious jerk. Younger daughter Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) is a whiny brat. All of them so stifle their matriarch's spirit that you're rooting for Francesca to run away with Robert the instant he arrives in his truck, looking for directions to a bridge he just can't find.
With the two-and-a-half-hour show thus spinning its wheels from the 10-minute mark on, little of Norman and Brown's other work is of any consequence. They do try to hint at the external pressures of the disapproving community that's holding Francesca back, but as most of them do little more than sit around on chairs and move the set, and their avatar is Marge (Cass Morgan), the busybody next-door neighbor who spies on Francesca through binoculars, the impact of this is sorely limited.
That's also true of most everything else here, with Norman so watering down and cheapening the Francesca-Robert bond that it becomes difficult to care about that, too, and slicing and dicing the once-poignant ending into being less about Robert's eternal effects on Francesca than on the challenges she faces aging from her early 30s to her late 30sriveting that is not.
Nor, for that matter, is the score. Brown, who's proved his gifts with Songs for a New World, Parade, and The Last Five Years, displays real ambition in attempting a States-meets-continent sound that fuses Italian art American folk-pop into something with obvious operatic aspirations. But the final product, both as written and blandly orchestrated (by Brown) comes across as confused, its sounds not blending into a unified whole.
O'Hara's clarion soprano, even if heavily (and unevenly) accented, makes luscious work of her numbers, and though Pasquale gets few chances to sing full-voiced, he sounds terrific as well. Unfortunately, too many of their songs, separate or together, are either musical muttering or dramatically unnecessary; for example, gorgeous though Francesca's opener, "To Build a Home," is in outlining her personal history, it's undercut by another scene later than retells the same story. And when O'Hara and Pasquale join their voices, the result lumbers rather than soars, not promoting their mutual heat in a useful way.
Many of Brown's other compositions don't help, turning over a lengthy first-act solo to Robert's ex-wife (Whitney Bashor), who appears only in a flashback, and the Act II opener to a twangy fair band singer (Katie Klaus) for no reason I was able to discern. Even Marge's one chance to shine, "Get Closer," is a waste of both Morgan and the moment, not even bothering to accent the unique perspective Marge could provide.
Perspective, though, is a problem throughout. Sher's direction is listless and unfocused, and his pacing unbearably plodding when not outright condescending in its treatment of characters outside of Francesca and Robert's love nest. The set design is worse yet: Michael Yeargan's bare-bones scenery is by turns ugly (the skewed-angle bridge that ignites Francesca and Robert's tryst is eye-popping for every imaginable wrong reason) and overblown (an elaborate tree always towering upstage steals every scene and contributes nothing to the action), and successfully undermines both basic staging conventions (a stationary telephone pole that's used once, but blocks many stage pictures) and common sense (given Francesca and Robert's discussion about the land's oppressive flatness, should the omnipresent backdrop really show so many rolling fields of wheat?).
All this leaves, then, is O'Hara and Pasquale. The two actors, who performed together in The Light in the Piazza pre-Broadway, share plenty of chemistry of their own even if their characters as written don't. The two of them suggest the near-limitless possibilities of today's best musical-theatre performers, even when drastically misused, and carry the difficult burdenwithout psychological nuance, yes, but also without stumbling, and here that's no small feat.
Of course, The Bridges of Madison County would be immeasurably better if you had any reason at all to care about what happened to Francesca and Robert. In the absence of that, however, caring about O'Hara and Pasquale is as close as we can get to an acceptable substitute.