I somehow made it through the '90s, the '00s, and nearly half of the '10s without reading The Bridges of Madison County. Nor have I seen the 1995 film of the same name, despite an abiding passion for all things Streep. I must confess, however, that I was prejudiced against the musical, based on an admittedly second-hand impression of the original property. Treacly, I thought. Replete with soppy sentimentality.
Whether that impression is fair or no, I can tell you one thing about the musical The Bridges of Madison County: I frickin' loved it. So much so that I went back and saw it a second time just to savor once more in the soaring music, the sensitive staging, the simple yet nuanced storytelling, and the restrained yet heartrending performances.
The ravishing score is by Jason Robert Brown, both music and lyrics, and the smart and economical book is by Marsha Norman. Both deserve commendation for taking a piece that could very easily have come off as precious, or melodramatic, and infused it with believable characters, palpable drama, and a strong sense of build throughout.
For the uninitiated, Bridges is essentially about a four-day love affair between an Iowa housewife, an émigré from Italy after World War II, and an itinerant magazine photographer. Composer/lyricist Brown has crafted one of his finest scores to date. There are few folks currently working who can shape an effective character number like JRB. He somehow manages to create lyrics that are plain, honest and idiomatic, while assiduously avoiding cliché. It's really quite a feat. (Brown's The Last Five Years is further testament to this skill)
Brown also makes deft use of harmonization and orchestration to complement this firm sense of character. Francesca, the housewife, gets a wonderfully expansive opening number describing her journey to America, while the underscoring evokes both the classical, arpeggiated feel of her Italian heritage, and forward drive of the cello accompaniment that draws her ineluctably toward her future.
Meanwhile, Brown gives Robert Kincaid, Francesca's lover, a rambling musical feel that evokes the peripatetic nature of the character and his profession. As the story progresses, the music of these characters comes closer and closer, all while maintaining an undercurrent of foreboding and missed opportunity. As I sat listening to the score, I kept jotting down adjectives: supple, ravishing, captivating, thrilling. Brown has, in my humble opinion, crafted one of the most beautiful scores I've heard in years. Decades, even.
What's more, Brown and Norman have worked in tandem to create songs for the supporting characters that do far more than give the rest of the the cast a chance to shine. Kincaid's erstwhile wife, a would-be singer/songwriter, gets a gorgeous diegetic number ("Another Life") that she sings as Kincaid reveals his past to Franscesca. The show is full of these moments, both nuanced and efficient: Francesca's next-door neighbor, Marge, performs a song ("Get Closer") that is supposed to be on the radio. The song that not only provides commentary on the developing relationship between Francesca and Robert, but also reflects Marge's warmth as Francesca's confidante.
One of the main attractions of this production is, of course, the cast. The talented and protean Kelli O'Hara plays Francesca, opposite a smoldering Steven Pasquale as Robert Kincaid. The always reliable Hunter Foster plays Bud, Francesca's husband, and the delightful Cass Morgan plays Marge. Almost all of the players (with a few unfortunate exceptions in the supporting cast) bring not only humanity but also restraint to their performances. Although the show is really about Francesca and Robert, the creators have taken great care to give everyone a backstory, perhaps just a tad too much in the the case of Bud.
Director Bartlett Sher coaxes layered, honest performances from this talented crew, while providing fluid staging that provides continual flow between multiple locations, as well as the past and the present. The show is deliberately paced, but is never lagging, never static, always with a sense of purpose and forward motion. Some of the applause breaks felt unnecessary, as the story could benefit from a more slightly more seamless presentation. The epilogue felt a tad protracted, but eventually the piece builds to a ravishing final moment that is as simple as it is devastating.
In short, I urge you all to rush at your earliest opportunity to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre to experience this exquisite show -- which, by the look of the show's grosses, may not be around that much longer. Hopefully, business will pick up for Bridges, because it really deserves a chance to run.