by Kelly, Manager of Group & Partner Services
I’ll admit to being incredibly leery when I heard the news that The Bridges of Madison County was coming to Broadway (now playing at the Schoenfeld Theatre.) Its source material once again bears the trend of Broadway’s liberal borrowing from the movies (the 1995 movie starred Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood,) which can be disastrous to say the least. Then I heard that attached to this project was the greatest name I could have hoped to hear: Jason Robert Brown.
In the current Broadway landscape, you can’t throw a stick around Times Square without hitting a starry-eyed theatre lover who will tell you that Jason Robert Brown is one of the greatest composers on the scene. A Tony winner for the score of his 1998 musical Parade, Brown may not known for his commercial success (case in point – Parade closed after only 39 previews and 85 performances.) However, any singer worth their salt will beg to sing from his catalogue – Songs for a New World and The Last 5 Years have become wildly popular after their initial Off-Broadway runs (The Last 5 Years has especially blown up as of late – a revival of the work directed by Brown himself ran Off-Broadway in 2013 and a widely buzzed-about movie version starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan is currently in production.) On Bridges, Brown partnered with book writer Marsha Norman (Pulitzer prize-winning playwright of ‘night, Mother, which will be revived in the 2015-16 Broadway season with Audra McDonald and Oprah,) hoping to bring some substance and beauty to the stage after a season littered with more light-hearted fare.
Bridges is based on the novel by Robert James Waller, which is one of the bestselling novels of the 20th century. Francesca, an Italian war bride who moved to Iowa with an American GI, leads an unremarkable life, raising two children in a sleepy farm community. While her family is away at the state fair, a free-spirited photographer named Robert Kinkaid (who is passing through shooting photos of the area’s covered bridges for National Geographic) stops for directions. Over the next four days, Robert and Francesca share an intense and passionate affair, leaving Francesca questioning whether to embrace her newly awakened spirit and leave her family to run off with Robert, or stay as she was.
The vital and seemingly impossible-to-cast lead role of Francesca? Cue another name that filled my heart with joy – Kelli O’Hara. Known for her stunningly beautiful soprano and deep well of emotional theatre work, Tony nominee O’Hara is widely respected in the Broadway community. Moving onto the scene in 2000 as a replacement lead in the original run of Jekyll & Hyde, O’Hara really garnered attention as she broke hearts as Clara in the Broadway run of A Light in the Piazza in 2005 (side note – seeing Piazza still remains to this day one of the most remarkable theatrical experiences of my life.) Leading roles followed in The Pajama Game (with costar Harry Connick, Jr.), South Pacific, and Nice Work if You Can Get it. O’Hara led the cast of Playwright Horizon’s Far From Heaven recently, then took some time off (missing Bridges’ out-of-town tryout) due to her pregnancy, re-joining the cast for their Broadway run.
O’Hara’s costar in Bridges is no stranger to chemistry with the leading lady. Steven Pasquale shared the stage with O’Hara in Far From Heaven, as well created the role of Fabrizio in early stages of The Light in the Piazza. The handsome leading man is often more recognizable from his TV work than his stage work – Pasquale could not move to Broadway with Piazza due to his role in FX’s hit series “Rescue Me,” and starred in the ill-fated NBC drama “Do No Harm.” Bridges marks Pasquale’s Broadway musical debut.
With the immense pool of talent on and off stage, Bridges has a lot to live up to. And live up it does. O’Hara and Pasquale are greatly matched vocally – both technically as well as in sheer emotion. Their second act duet “Before and After You/One Second & a Million Miles” is the defining moment of the show, an emotionally rousing and soaring piece that stopped the performance right in its tracks. The chemistry between the two leads combined with their vocal ability raise the genius of Brown’s score to another level entirely. And what a score it is. Brown blends the traditional and lightly operatic with folksy tunes and charging contemporary melodies to create a night of breathtaking power mixed with vulnerability – an astonishing mix to behold. Another song of note is “Another Life,” sung by Robert’s ex-wife Marian, an echo of the trials their marriage endured, counterbalanced by the audience glimpsing the spark of a new relationship beginning between Robert and Francesca. Beyond the aforementioned duet, I was truly moved by Robert’s final song “It All Fades Away.” A song of true longing, I was actually unable to sit still in my seat as Pasquale sang Robert’s final offering of devotion and love.
Obviously, the true gem of this production is the score and its cast. If any small criticism is offered, it would be that the production could have been done in a simpler manner – the meat of the story is between our two lovers, and this production chose to flesh out the world around them with time spent on Francesca’s family – husband Bud (a perfectly cast Hunter Foster in his first role after the gone-too-soon Hands on a Hardbody) and children Michael (Derek Klena – a favorite of mine since his turn as Eddie Birdlace in the brilliant Dogfight at Second Stage) and Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen), as well as their comic relief neighbors Marge (Cass Morgan), and Charlie (Michael X. Martin.) Though wanting to spend time with the secondary characters to expand the world of Winterset, Iowa makes perfect sense, some may argue that it wasn’t necessary. I, personally, did not mind the short forays into the world outside Francesca’s farmhouse, viewing the scenes and songs as a bit of a palate cleanser to prepare us for the next course our couple had to offer.
The bottom line is that in reality, no one should be rooting for this couple to succeed – after all, Francesca is a married woman with a stable, kind husband and two growing children…and she’s known Robert for the blink of an eye. But the sizzle of chemistry between Pasquale and O’Hara combined with the beauty and humanity of Brown’s score leaves you sympathizing with the pair – after all, who hasn’t been lonely or felt out of sorts until they connected with someone else on an instant and deeper level? At the end of the evening, I found myself mentally packing Francesca’s bags – after all, how could you resist the pull of love and the feeling of completeness when you’ve found someone who truly awakens your spirit? But I am not Francesca, and I cannot reveal which road she chooses to follow – you will have to find that out for yourself when you see this magnificent show. Bring tissues – you’re going to need them.
Interested in experiencing the passion and beauty of The Bridges of Madison County for yourself? Email me at email@example.com or contact the New York Guest office at 212-302-4019212-302-4019 for tickets.