The Bridges of Madison County

This story was meant to be a musical. I have not seen the film adaptation of Robert James Waller’s novel, but I did recently read the source material. It’s a light read and while the love story at its center is compelling, it didn’t move me. But music is better than words. All the complicated feelings—the lingering, the excitement, the romance, the resignation—really come alive in song.

The happenings take place over four days in Winterset, Iowa, where Francesca (Kelli O’Hara), an Italian who married a US soldier during the war and moved with him to Madison County, lives with her husband, Bud (Hunter Foster), and their two children, Michael (Derek Klena) and Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen). It’s a small, provincial town, one that affords Francesca a rather small, provincial life. Enter photographer Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale), who is in town to photograph all the covered bridges in Madison County. Shortly after Bud and the kids leave town for a week at the state fair, Robert drives up Francesca’s driveway and asks for directions. They spend the next four days falling in love.

Adapting anything for a different medium can be tricky, but the creative team behind The Bridges of Madison County got it right. Directed by Bartlett Sher (Golden Boy) and with a book by Marsha Norman (‘night Mother) and a glorious score by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years), the musical enriches the central relationship while fleshing out supporting characters.

For example, we periodically check in with Bud, Michael and Carolyn. We get to see them interact with one another and with Francesca. This turns them into real people rather than mere plot devices. Plus, it helps fill in Francesca’s back story and where she is in her life, which enables us to feel for her and her struggle.

There’s also an interesting directing choice. At one point, Francesca tells Robert that Winterset was described to her as a town where people care, and it is. It’s a town where people pitch in to help one another, and one in which they look after one another, whether for noble or nosey reasons. And so throughout, Sher has the supporting players sitting around the stage (kind of like in Our Town, or the revival of All My Sons a few years ago).

What the townspeople look in on is the love and connection that develops between Francesca and Robert. Robert is a romantic (in the truest, explorer sense of the word), everything Bud is not and everything Francesca ever wanted but thought she’d never get. And something about Francesca sparks something in Robert, whose nomadic life led his first wife to divorce him and keeps him from establishing relationships with people he meets as he travels.

O’Hara and Pasquale, who have worked together before (most recently in Far from Heaven), have a wonderful, palpable chemistry. (I felt their heat all the way up in the rear mezzanine.) They play well with each other and, despite me not being down with OPP, had me rooting for their survival as a couple.

Kelli O’Hara (Carousel) has such a stellar voice and her mannerisms are spot on. She beautifully brings to life a woman who is not just discovering a new lover but also rediscovering herself. And Steven Pasquale (The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…) is so hunky. He’s rugged and handsome, and then he opens his mouth to sing and you can’t help but swoon. Though his Robert is an interloper, in Pasquale’s performance there is not a hint of predatory behavior. He’s merely a wanderer who has finally found what he’s been searching for.

All of that would be nothing were it not for Jason Robert Brown’s score. The music styles are specific to each character. Simpler and jaunty for Bud, more classical, like a Verdi opera, for Francesca. (Another small piece that speaks volumes about the characters: Robert is the only one to call Francesca by her full name; everyone else calls her Fran or Frannie.) Robert’s tunes start out with a slight twang (he fancies himself a cowboy), but as he “falls into her,” his songs blend into Francesca’s style.

The best part is, though, that unlike some other recent musicals (like Far from Heaven, for example), this has full songs and the score is seamlessly integrated into the book, despite being slightly operatic. The balance between the book and the score works and becomes an effective storytelling method. The songs provide a window into the characters, which is what songs are supposed to do in a musical. And there are a lot of voices, a sonorous chorus (something we don’t hear a lot in modern musicals) and lush strings, featuring some solo cello movements that are stirring, and no keyboard but, rather, an actual piano (another something that we don’t hear in a lot of modern musicals; most shows have a Casio)! Thank Thespis for Jason Robert Brown.

Additional notes and bonuses:
  • The production value is not to be overlooked. Michael Yeargan’s scenic design is another character, supported by Donald Holder’s resplendent lighting design. 
  • If you want to be blown away, wait for “Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles,” a Francesca-Robert duet in the second act, and Robert’s eleven-o’clock number, “It All Fades Away.” (Watch O'Hara and Pasquale perform a section of the former, and watch Pasquale sing a section of the latter.)
  • The performance I attended was conducted by none other than Jason Robert Brown! Make sure you check the board when you walk into the theatre. 
  • Visit Playbill to read about Jason Robert Brown's approach to writing the show.

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