The quiet, brief romance at the center of Robert James Waller’s bestseller “The Bridges of Madison County” would not seem to be ideal material for the stage. But talent is everything, and book writer Marsha Norman and lyricist-composer Jason Robert Brown have fashioned this ultra-simple story into a musical that’s superior not only to its source material but the 1995 movie adaptation by Clint Eastwood. “Bridges,” the musical, opened Thursday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
It raises the stakes dramatically to give the Italian-born heroine Francesca (Kelli O’Hara) a singing voice that quickly expresses her isolation among the cornfields of 1960s Iowa. It also gives a firm reality to this unhappily married woman’s plight of love at first sight – or is it just lust? Or pure loneliness? – when a National Geographic photographer, Robert (Steven Pasquale), comes to Madison County to shoot some covered bridges.
That’s the power of musical theater. Audiences may crave these love-at-first sight stories, but how do you keep us from laughing at the absurdity of it all? I’ve always been intrigued by how differently audiences respond to the stage play “The Heiress” and its brilliant 1949 film adaptation, written by the original playwrights, Ruth and Augustus Goetz. Theatergoers invariably guffaw when the suitor Morris abruptly voices his love for Catherine. But in the movie, the Goetzes and director William Wyler soften that declaration by first having the couple dance at an engagement party and then with a song that Morris sings to Catherine. Yes, it’s not love. It’s not even lust. But Catherine buys it is, and the important thing is that moviegoers do, too.
Norman, Brown and director Bartlett Sher work that same magic with Francesca and Robert’s very quick love affair. (The couple even dances a bit to some music on the radio.) In fact, their affair plays so convincingly that at the end of act one you may wonder what’s left for them to do in the 70 remaining minutes of act two. Norman solves that very effectively by creating a number of insightful, never obtrusive flashbacks that Sher has choreographed beautifully. The past and present also weave together nicely with a subplot that takes the kids and husband (a baffled but sympathetic Hunter Foster) off to a state fair where, unlike his mother, the son (Derek Klena) decides to take a different road. The collaboration here is a nearly perfect melding of story, arias, dialogue, recitative and pop tunes. It helps, too, that the two leads are in superb voice. Brown has written arias for O’Hara, country pop for Pasquale, which is a sly reversal of Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza’s historic turns in “South Pacific.”
When he keeps them simple, Brown’s melodies shimmer like sunlight on the cornfield out Francesca’s window. He also has the good sense not to load down his lyrics with too much plot or exposition. Brown is a bit old-fashioned that way: sometimes it’s enough just to know what the characters are feeling. Only at the very beginning (“To Build a Home”) and the end (“It All Fades Away”) does the melody get lost in bombast – as if he’s reaching for “This Nearly Was Mine” but ends up on the dark side of “Climb Every Mountain.”
Everything else in this show, including the two leads’ performances, is remarkably understated, which, for Broadway, makes “Bridges” almost revolutionary. The design team (Michael Yeargan, Catherine Zuber, Donald Holder) has also found a way to make a kitchen-sink drama not look dowdy on stage, using the expanses of a gorgeously lit landscape to express both Francesca’s dilemma and her salvation. Kudos, too, to music director Tom Murray and sound designer Jon Weston. The strings haven’t sounded this vibrant in a Broadway pit since Sher’s Lincoln Center Theater revival of “South Pacific” in 2008.