Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Bridges of Madison County is Almost Real(ly Good)

Soaring melodies, lush arrangements, romantic performances, and the voice of a Broadway generation, these are Hallmarks of The Bridges of Madison County, based on the novel and movie of the same name. If you don't mind sacrificing plot depth for musical complexity, then skip on down to the Schoenfeld where Bartlett Sher is taking audiences on a tour of Iowa eight times per week. It is a simple story where we learn about the Johnsons, a seemingly average Iowa family. Bud is a former soldier and his wife Francesca (Franny to the locals) is an Italian war bride. They live on a farm with their two children and all is well until Francesca is left home alone for a few days and Robert Kincaid, a mysterious photographer and soon-to-be love of her life appears on the farm.

Kelli O'Hara and her voice are the true stars of this production. I've seen her in other shows and concerts, and while she is always fantastic, she was born to play this role. It is a different type of character than we've seen her play in the past, no longer an ingenue, and Brown's music sits right in her sweet spot. Her Francesca feels like a Rodgers and Hammerstein's leading lady with a lot more issues. These flaws make her Francesca feel more contemporary and therefore, relatable in a way that she's "Almost Real," hence my title. Francesca is every woman who has ever been in a loveless marriage, has regrets, or wishes her life would have turned out differently. I'm slightly appalled that I would get behind a character who would sacrifice her family for another man, but when Francesca takes us through her past and we see how much she has endured, we want her to have every bit of happiness. O'Hara does an Italian accent, and I thought it would be a distraction, but after the first few minutes of the piece it seems so natural that you don't even question in. In fact, in makes her seem more exotic and even more out of place in the flat Iowa farmland. Vocally, this is the best she has ever been. Her soprano is a breath of fresh air in an era where you can't go into a Broadway house without hearing belting, or even worse, screlting. Her singing is very controlled for the majority of the show, but there are a few times that she really let's it fly, especially in "Almost Real" when she takes us back to Italy and in "Before and After You/One Second & a Million Miles," during her last moments with Robert.

It's hard to believe that this is Steven Pasquale's Broadway musical debut. Why on earth hasn't some director scooped him up? Because he is fresh for the musical theatre audience, he works even more perfectly as Robert. First of all, he is terribly handsome and just rugged enough to make us believe he was a former cowboy and current vagrant artist. His brilliant baritone really makes Brown's music sing, no pun intended, and his chemistry with Francesca Kelli O'Hara is undeniable. It is a credit to their acting that the forbidden affair between their characters becomes something that the audience not only accepts, but actually roots for. Pasquale portrays Robert as a shy, polite gentleman who simply tries to keep to himself until fate puts him on Francesca's front porch. His intensity grows throughout the show in a way that feels natural and honest, peaking during his final moments of Francesca. When we see Robert again at the end of the show, he is quiet and reflective, resigning himself to the fact that he will live his final days alone in such a way that we as the audience and heartbroken that he never tried to go after her again.

The songs are the heart and soul of the show, as they should be with a composer such as Brown who is known for his nuanced and layered music, but this also highlights the weaknesses of the book. Outside of the songs, the characters aren't particularly well-developed. This is fine for Francesca and Robert, who sing the majority of the songs, but it is a true disservice to the rest of the characters. For example, Bud, (Hunter Foster) Francesca's husband, is written as so flat and boring that the audience roots for the affair and pulls for Francesca to leave him. It is only the presence of their children that makes Francesca's decision a true moral dilemma, not only for her, but for the audience. And even the children, Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Michael (Derek Klena) have few redeeming qualities. Both are written, and acted, as so whiny and annoying that it's no wonder Francesca can finally let her hair down when her family goes off to the Indiana State Fair. Marge (Cass Morgan) is the one likable member of the supporting cast. The nosy neighbor could easily become a caricature, but as she nails the one-liners with such zip, she also shows her heart in the end when she just subtly lets on that she knew about Francesca's affair all those years ago and never once judged her for it.

Bartlett Sher's direction is pretty traditional, highlighting the romance and beauty of the score and his two leads. It's actually quite similar to his work in The Light in the Piazza. He does spice things up a little, particularly in Act I, with a scene that can best be described as a flashback. As Robert tells Francesca about his first wife, Marian (Whitney Bashor) actually takes the stage to sing the story. Sher took a stab at a different type of storytelling, but it just doesn't feel particularly necessary. Bashor does have a fantastic voice, but it seems like Sher liked the actress and created a character for her that wasn't integral to the story. The montage scene near the end of Act II is a triumph for Sher in that it covers several decades seamlessly without feeling forced. In another director's hands this scene could have really dragged on, but he keeps it moving with Brown's bluegrassy/folksy "When I'm Gone".

The Bridges of Madison County has the makings of Jason Robert Brown's first big broadway hit. He is known for The Last Five Years, Parade, and other slightly more offbeat shows, but this piece was clearly written with Broadway patrons in mind. It is a "big show" in every sense of the word. You have a marriage-turned-love triangle unfolding in a gossipy small town in the ever changing 1960s. All of this is the perfect framework for drama and music. We've all heard the old theatrical adage "we sing because we can't speak anymore," and it plays out perfectly in this show. Emotions are running high throughout, which leads perfectly into the songs, particularly in Act II. Brown blends his layered, complex musical sensibility with the local character of Iowa to create a folksy, yet sweeping piece of Americana. This score harkens back to Aaron Copland as much as Stephen Sondheim. If you're looking for a perfect production, this show isn't that, but then again what is? I, and I think most people, see musicals for the score and the performances, so if you go in the right frame of mind, O'Hara and Pasquale's voices and Brown's music will sweep you away.

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