Bridges of Madison County     Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre     January 18 2014

Having never read the novel, The Bridges of Madison County, nor seen the film of the same name, arriving at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, I had no real notion of what to expect from the new musical based on that book.

Music and lyrics were by Jason Robert Brown, a composer with good Broadway form (Parade); the Book was courtesy of Marsha Norman who penned The Secret Garden; Bartlett Sher (South Pacific, Light in the Piazza, Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) was directing and the Broadway diva, Kelli O’Hara, was the lead. So there was good reason for high expectations.

There was no curtain, so entry to the theatre revealed the basic elements of Michael Yeargan’s set: a backdrop presenting the flat plains of Iowa, a large three dimensional tree; some single wooden chairs on each side of the stage and a series of photo frames giving a picture feel to the acting area. It at once evoked the country of middle America – indeed, it could have been the set for Oklahoma. Familiar, warm and inviting, it set an excellent mood.

When the piece began, darkness enveloped the stage and then a shaft of light heralded the slow and steady arrival of a relatively dowdy farmer’s wife. It was not until the actress started to sing – beautifully, powerfully and with intense feeling – the lustrous opening number, To Build A Home, that it was clear this was O’Hara. Her natural beauty was fiercely restrained; this was a simple Italian-born housewife and mother.

And from that simple opening, the piece proceeded, steadily, adding layer upon layer, to evolve into a meditation on love and sacrifice, on loss and stolen moments of intense pleasure, on choice and consequence. It’s a very intimate work, but it packs a serious emotional punch.

O’Hara plays a woman from Naples whose fiancé died in the war. Bereft, she took the hand of the handsome American who promised to take her to a new life in America, away from her bombed home and shattered dreams. She has two children with him, raises them and works the farm with her husband and is a popular member of the local town. It’s a small town, so the neighbours see and know everything. She loves her husband but she feels unfulfilled; life as a farmer’s wife meant that she had to abandon her passion for Art and she feels loved but unfulfilled.

Then Robert arrives. He is a photographer for National Geographic, manly and gorgeous, a free spirit and hollow in his own way. He chances upon her and a bond quickly becomes adultery, but based on real love, real desire, a real need for each other.

Inevitably, O’Hara has to choose and the consequences of that choice fuel the second Act.

It is quite a skill to take a tale about treachery and adultery and turn it into a convincing love story, but all those involved here have that skill. This was only the third preview, but already the piece is a sensation and it will inevitably improve as things are fine-tuned on the way to opening night.

It is probably Jason Robert Brown’s best whole score to date. The music has a holistic feel, it pulses with the feeling of the setting, the heat, the boredom, the routine and the need for change and it contains many powerful and wonderful tunes. Wondering, Falling Into You, Who We Are and Who We Want To Be, Almost Real, It All Fades Away and Always Better – every one a marvel requiring real vocal skill.

O’Hara is sensational as Francesca, the adulterous wife. She effortlessly communicates the pain and difficulty of her various choices and decisions and the positive physical transformation that overcomes her when she meets Robert is quite amazing. Her voice is at full stretch and power, with a powerful middle register on display as never before. It’s a completely joyful, utterly real performance. Great in absolutely every way.

Steven Pasquale is the perfect choice for Robert, the photographer who awakens Francesca’s soul and body. He is splendidly masculine, fiercely and compellingly attractive and he sings with the kind of rich resonant voice Jason Robert Brown wishes he himself possessed. He is completely genuine and there is never any sense he is taking advantage of Francesca. It’s another towering performance.

There is excellent work from Hunter Foster (Franscesca’s simple farmer husband), Derek Klena (their son) and Caitlin Kinnunen (their daughter) and because they all work so well, the conundrum facing Francesca is all the more painful.

As the caring, all-seeing neighbours, Cass Morgan and Michael X Martin are pure delight. Morgan’s delivery of Get Closer is especially triumphant.

Whitney Bashor has two parts and two solos: she is Marian, Robert’s former partner and Chiara, Francesca’s fiery sister in Naples. She is good in both roles, but particularly excels as Chiara.

There are no bad performances here. The entire cast can do all that is required of them and the harmonies and ensemble singing are rich and perfectly in tune.

There is a marvelous musical section in Act Two which involves the entire company and encompasses a wedding, a graduation and a funeral – it is breath-takingly good in every way, a seamless blend of melody, mood and fine character work.

Michael Yeargan’s design is superb, cleverly evoking different spaces with ease but in a piecemeal way, so there are no fixed sets or flats. This allows for watching villagers to be ever present, for various actions to occur simultaneously but separately and permits a very smooth transition from moment to moment. It all works effortlessly under Sher’s sure and precise direction.

This is an assured and mature piece of musical drama. It is no comedy, but it does have genuinely funny aspects. First and foremost though, it is a human tragedy – and the acting, staging, book, music and orchestrations all combine to produce an intensely affecting and sublimely entertaining night at the theatre.

Don’t be surprised if The Bridges of Madison County is the hit of this Broadway season. It’s a masterpiece and in O’Hara and Pasquale it has two genuine stars. Tonight they received tumultuous acclaim and a long standing ovation – as they should.

Quite unmissable.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Bridges of Madison County
Previous articleRichard II
Next articleThe Producers – Review
Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.