The engaging new musical “The Bridges of Madison County,” now open at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, left me wondering two things. First: Can Kelli O’Hara do anything? And second: Are we so starved for affection we’re willing to give over our hearts to a story that is — sorry, folks! — utterly preposterous? Even after swooning over the book? And sighing over the movie?
The answers: Indeed, Kelli O’Hara can do anything, darn near perfectly, including transform herself into a chestnut-haired Italian beauty who, for the better part of two decades, has assumed the role of an Iowa housewife. And, apparently … yes. We are suckers for a good love story, no matter the form, and even when it's likely we recall the outcome.
Oh, that story. Seen my hankie? “Bridges” is the tale of Francesca Johnson (four-time Tony nominee O’Hara), a devoted mom, and her brief affair with Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale, best known for TV’s “Rescue Me”), a National Geographic photographer who pulls into her driveway in his pickup looking for directions. Francesca’s husband is off at a state fair with the kids. Will she and Robert hit it off? Come on. Do state fairs sell corn dogs?
Add to this narrative a creative team that, as a triumvirate, could not be better-suited to a musical adaptation of the 1992 novella by Robert James Waller. The composer is Jason Robert Brown, of the aching “The Last Five Years.” The book is by Marsha Norman, whose tragic “‘night, Mother” is rumored to be the vehicle that may lure Oprah to a Broadway stage. And the director is Bartlett Sher, who has elicited great work from O’Hara previously in “The Light in the Piazza” and “South Pacific.”
“Bridges” hooks us with its first scene-setting song. In “To Build a Home,” O’Hara maps out the lay of the land, explaining how she arrived from Italy, and how the years passed from 1948 to 1965: “I learn to speak / I learn to sew / I learn to let the longing go.” If you’ve seen O’Hara before—strawberry blonde, Irish, upbeat Kelli O’Hara, with the traffic-stopping soprano—you may ask: Who is this woman with the dark hair, the authentic Italian accent and the heavy heart?
Francesca is the central figure of “Bridges,” and with O’Hara in charge, we never stop wanting her to be happy.
That said, I was skeptical when I’d heard Pasquale, previously on Broadway in “reasons to be pretty,” had won this role. Perhaps I’d been conditioned, thanks to Clint Eastwood in the 1995 film, to expect a more weathered Robert Kincaid. My bad. With his strong voice and not-quite-brooding mannerisms, Pasquale’s got this all under control. If anything, his youthfulness makes the resolution of the story that much harder to bear.
“The Bridges of Madison County” shines brightest when the duo are on stage together, though they get a boost from a strong supporting team. As Bud, Francesca’s loving, if ho-hum husband, Hunter Foster (recently seen clinging to a pickup truck himself, in “Hands on a Hardbody”) lends nuance to a role that could easily drift into the background.
Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin bring comic relief as Marge and Charlie, the well-intentioned neighbors with a penchant for gossip. As Robert’s ex-wife in the Pacific Northwest, Whitney Bashor shines with the folk-inspired melody “Another Life.” Derek Klena (“Wicked”) and Caitlin Kinnunen have nice turns as Francesca and Bud’s kids, even if they do seem a bit grownup for the roles.
Brown’s score is operatic, particularly “Before and After You,” which has Francesca struggling to find a way she can align her life with Robert’s. I fell hard for “Look at Me,” in the first act, which has Francesca stirring to emotional life after years of drought: “Suddenly, in this minute, I’m not getting older. Please just look at me, and then please walk away.”
Michael Yeargan’s minimalist set adapts to represent the kitchen of Francesca and Bud’s home, the state fair, and a covered bridge, where Robert instructs Francesca in the finer points of lighting.
As for that story, OK, I get it. It’s escapism. Maybe things like this happen. Or maybe they don’t, and that’s why we need them depicted in pop culture. As Marge says to her husband, discussing the fellow who has spurred all the gossip in town: “The only thing the man’s missing is a pack of cigarettes and a dog.” Will Francesca leave her family to run off with the humpy lensman, whose dress shirts are all missing a top button? Oh, who cares. It’s so delightful to get caught up in her dilemma.
“The Bridges of Madison County,” with an open-ended run at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St. Tickets: $67-$141. Call 212-239-6200 or visit Telecharge.com.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn