Robert James Waller's mushy romantic novel, “The Bridges of Madison County” topped the NY Times best seller list in 1993. It was made into a film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. Now, it has been recreated as a Broadway musical. Although the talent associated with this production is first- rate and one could not ask for a better cast directed by Bartlett Sher, the results are less than felicitous. First, the Book by Marsha Norman, an excellent playwright, tells the story too literally instead of letting it evolve with nuance.
The show opens with a long solo, entitled “To Build a Home” sung by the extraordinary Kelli O'Hara. While her voice is gorgeous, we cannot always understand what she is saying and it is important because in it she establishes her character. That character is Francesca Johnson, who after her fiancé died in WWII, left her home in Naples, Italy, to marry Bud, an American soldier. Moving with him to a farm in Iowa, having a son and daughter, has been her life.
The score by Jason Robert Brown is sweeping and lyrical, but sometimes hits notes as flat as the Iowa landscape, where this takes place in1965. At the end of the solo, folks from the area come on to the stage singing while bringing and setting up wooden fences that form the frame of the show (Michael Yeargan). This starts out as interesting but tires with repetition.
O'Hara in a homespun but well-tailored dress courtesy of Catherine Zuber, her blond hair swept up into a brown wig knotted at the neck, uses a light Italian accent. Her family, loyal, hard-working husband Bud, played by the reliable Hunter Foster, and two rancorous teenagers, Carolyn (the stolid Caitlin Kinnunen) and Michael (Derek Klena, nice looking but too old for the part), are leaving for the weekend to the State Fair. She refuses to go, insisting she is going to take time off and read. Along comes Robert, a photographer for National Geographic, who is just traveling through to take photos of the covered bridges in town. Stephen Pasquale is the perfect choice for the part of this handsome loner on the trail. He has a great voice, strong and sweet, particularly in one of the best numbers, “Falling Into You.” Their coupling is almost instantaneous. She is moved by his sensitivity to the glowing light, produced beautifully by Donald Holder, and his photos of Napoli; he is happy to have a home-cooked meal and a roll in bed. Although they spend quite a bit of the second act making love and singing about it, the two actors do not really seem to connect. There is only one moment that shines: Francesca is with her family going to the ice cream shop and her passion seems real and she is torn when she sees Robert waiting for her.
(A pair of neighbors provides comic relief: Cass Morgan as Marge and Michael X. Martin as Charlie.)
The Coda at the end of “The Bridges of Madison County” does not match the rest of the show. It is tacked on as if it were the third act, Death and Dying, of Thornton Wilder's “Our Town.” In speedy fashion, it shows what happens to all the characters: two husbands die, Carolyn marries at 18 and has a child; Michael becomes a doctor; and Robert, on his death bed, sends a love letter to Francesca. And she ends by singing a morality solo about how right she was to stay with her family, which we already know.
I must report that there were audience members who were very emotionally impressed with “The Bridges of Madison County.” I was not.