by Cory Conley · March 3, 2014
Who would've thought that the spirit of Joni Mitchell could rescue The Bridges of Madison County?
No, Mitchell herself, that icon of lush, jazzy, confessional songwriting, was not involved in the creation of this musical adaptation of Robert James Waller's 1991 novel, which features a book by Marsha Norman and a score by Jason Robert Brown. Yet her distinctive style lands squarely on the stage of the Schoenfeld Theater, almost from thin air, in a stunning first-act ballad called "Another Life," when a character reminisces about a lost relationship from years ago. It tells a memorable story, it's beautifully sung by Whitney Bashor, and ultimately it lifts "Bridges" from the stale, workmanlike realm of movies-turned-musicals up to the loftier heights of raw, personal, well-imagined theatricality.
And mostly, it stays up there. Brown's score soon unleashes a trove of rhythm-and-blues-inflected Americana, with soaring melodies and winding refrains that match the heightened nature of this story. Norman's spare book moves the evening along with a few jokes and not too much fuss, while director Bartlett Sher has crafted a simple, elegant staging that features a chorus of townspeople in chairs. And the power generated by the enormous vocal talent of stars Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale is surely enough for the producers to save millions on electricity. The whole thing got under my skin, to be honest, and not in the way I expected.
Oh: we should probably get to the plot. But I'm assuming you know the basics by now, since the book sold more than twelve million copies and then morphed into a movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. But even if you're lost, it won't take long to catch you up: Francesca, an immigrant from Italy, has planted herself as a housewife in Iowa. Robert, meanwhile, is a roaming photographer who passes through town while Francesca's husband Bud and their kids are away on a trip. He stops to ask her for directions. They bond over the scenery. She invites him in for dinner, and it turns out they have a real connection, and then--- okay, must I go further? Suffice to say, the thrust of the story finds Francesca torn between her passion and her family.
Waller's novel made no claims of originality; it's a tearjerker meant to be devoured on a long flight with a glass of wine and some tissues. On stage, though, it's the music that blesses this familiar fable with real humanity and seriousness, and Bridges may well represent Brown's most fully effective score to date. Brown and Norman have removed much of the book's melodrama and replaced it with an expanded look at Francesca's circumstances: her son's desire for a world beyond Iowa; the frustrated yearnings of the neighbors next door. We see flashbacks for both Francesca and Robert; the first comes in that Mitchell-inspired "Another Life," sung by Robert's ex-wife. Even Bud gets a sympathetic ear in his bluesy number "Something Like a Dream," where he eloquently explores the fear of losing his wife. (He's played by a likable, understated Hunter Foster.)
Of course, it wouldn't matter much if you didn't care about the love story. But O'Hara and Pasquale make sure you do. Her anxious, hard-won vulnerability makes for a perfect contrast with his hunky, brooding intensity. I won't soon shake the memory of their sweeping duet "Just One Second (And a Million Miles)" or the pair of solos that form the show's finale, particularly Robert's ("It All Fades Away.") You might not think Bridges of Madison County will be your cup of tea at all--- I certainly didn't--- but life is full of surprises. I saw it on one of February's most frigid arctic nights, and as long as this show was rollicking along, I could've sworn it was already spring.