I’ll admit it. I watched the movie when it opened in theaters in 1995. I couldn’t wait for it to end. It was over two hours long and was chock full of schmaltz and bridges—and schmaltzy talk about romance and bridges. I was particularly unsettled by Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood naked in a bathtub. It isn’t that I am ageist and have an aversion to geriatric sex. I just don’t care to witness it, neither in fiction nor real life. So when I heard that Bridges of Madison County was receiving a musical treatment, I winced. Then I saw the creative team and star power behind it: Music and Lyrics by the genius behind Parade, Jason Robert Brown? Ok. My ears are perked! Book by Pulitzer and Tony award winning author The Secret Garden and The Color Purple, Marsha Norman? You bet! Starring the dashing leading man Steven Pasquale and the first rate Kelli O’Hara? Please! Can this get any better? All under the direction of Broadway hotshot, Bartlett Sher? Well, I was simply gob smacked with interest!
Did this creative team match the quality of their already impressive credits? Indeed. Based on Robert James Waller best-selling novel, Bridges is a morality tale which somehow, when paired with a stunningly gorgeous score by Brown, soars above all expectations. Francesca (O’Hara) beautifully paints a picture of the native Italy she left behind for… wait for it…IOWA?!!? Someone got a bum rap here, huh? Yet this was 1965 and her choices to be a homemaker beckoned her to the United States. Her beau turned out to be the “Aw Shucks” type, Bud (played with usual blue-collar esteem by Hunter Foster). Bud and his kids are headed to the county fair for a few days, leaving Francesca for some well-deserved quiet time. The children, Michael and Carolyn (Derek Klena and Caitlin Kinnunen), are a handful. Within 5 minutes of meeting them, I was convinced, had it been me, that I’d have thrown myself off one of the titular wooden overpasses as a permanent avoidance tactic to such insolence. Shortly after leaving for the fair, a handsome “hippie” photographer, Robert (Pasquale) pulls into the driveway, asking directions from Francesca and soon, their paths are both headed in the direction of lovers’ lane. It all makes sense, right: Iowa as a sacrifice for Italy? A redneck husband? Rambunctious children and an empty House? I’d like to buy a vowel, Pat. OOOOhhhhh! And you’ve solved that little puzzle.
For four days, the lonely lovers spark untapped wells of emotion and lust in one another, all the while realizing that this must remain a hidden passion. It doesn’t help that they need to dodge Marge and Charlie, (Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin) Francesca’s nebbish neighbors. While the do gooders next door provide a few opportunities for comic relief, they read like cookie cutter caricatures. Without question, O’Hara’s radiant presence carries this show. Besides capturing the nuances of a conflicted, immigrant housewife, her voice is pure heaven. Pasquale generally carries his own here, too. Yet for all of his stage chemistry with O’Hara, his macho ruggedness and powerful baritone, the magnetism does not translate to the audience.
There is much to ponder in Bridges of Madison County, most significantly the choices and consequences of our actions- the “could nots”, “should nots”, and “might have beens” that morally conscious individuals are plagued with on a continual basis. It skillfully accomplishes its’ purpose without seeping into saccharine ground. With elegant scenic and lighting design by Michael Yeargan and Donald Holder, Bridges of Madison County creates a deeply profound tableau of love, longing, and life. While it eschews the typical Broadway extravaganza, its’ simplicity and beauty rests in the story. This will be a quality chapter in theatrical history books for those fortunate enough to have seen it.
The Bridges of Madison County is now playing on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, 236 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th. For tickets, call 212-239-6200, visit www.telecharge.com or go to the box office.