Thursday, February 20, 2014

A theatrical work of art

Musical theater lovers, mark the opening of The Bridges of Madison County with rejoicing! A gorgeous work of art has appeared at Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre that will fill your head with melody and stretch your heart with emotion. All the elements of this show -- direction, performance, music, script, lighting, sound, set design -- gather to create a memorable whole that should take a significant place in the Broadway canon.

However, don't expect a stage version that exactly replicates the 1995 movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Composer Jason Robert Brown, book writer Marsha Norman and director Bartlett Sher have re-imagined Robert James Waller's 1992 novel about an Iowa housewife's brief affair with an itinerant National Geographic photographer.

Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale
This Bridges uses the stage to create a fluid sense of time and space, deepening our view of the worlds of Francesca Johnson (Kelli O'Hara), and Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale).

Brown has written his greatest score, beginning the show with a simple, soulful cello line as Francesca recalls how she came from Italy to Iowa -- "To Build a Home." (I don't know if it was a sound problem or O'Hara is still settling into the Italian accent, but I and my companion had trouble understanding the lyrics in the first song.)

Michael Yeargan's set design and Donald Holder's lighting design (they both won Tonys for their work on Sher's South Pacific at Lincoln Center) mesh beautifully to create an Oklahoma!-like vision of Iowa's vast, lonely horizon. Holder's work with the subtleties of daylight and moonlight is particularly important in a story where one of the main characters -- the picture taker -- also paints with light.

The covered bridge that Robert arrives to photograph is a set of rectangular arches, lowered for the appropriate scenes, while other elements -- kitchen furniture, fences, trucks -- are moved in and out by cast members. Some of the actors remain, seated, at the edges of the stage, reminders of rural neighbors who may be as nosy as they are kind.

Francesca's husband Bud (a sturdy Hunter Foster), a very decent but emotionally limited man, is off with their son and daughter to the Indiana State Fair for three days and Francesca is looking forward to a bit of a rest.

Hunter Foster and Kelli O'Hara
Then Robert walks up her drive to ask directions to "the Rosamund Bridge." He is, as he sings, "Temporarily Lost" as he muses on a life of deliberately solitary wandering in the service of his art (and this country-tinged number could easily have been sung by Glen Campbell in his prime).

The first inkling that this is a different Bridges comes during Robert and Francesca's first dinner at the farmhouse, when Robert's ex-wife Marian (Whitney Bashor) -- his past, in other words -- walks through the kitchen and sings about their marriage in "Another Life." Bashor's poignant soprano gives this folkish song a special quality on such lyrics as "a woman wearing four years of confusion like a scarf."

(However, I don't know why Sher directed Robert and Francesca to watch and react to characters who are from the past or another place and clearly not in the same location. I found it slightly distracting.)

Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Michael (Derek Klena), Bud and Francesca's children, are also fleshed out as we see them testing their adolescent limits at the fair ("State Road 21/The Real World").

Robert and Francesca’s gradual dance of attraction is beautifully directed by Sher, climaxing at the end of Act I with the duet “Falling Into You,” which sounded to me like it could be a lush, romantic ballad of the 1940s. One of the fine things about Brown's work in Bridges is how successfully he composes in different genres.

Act II becomes even more musically fulfilling, as a raucous country-western song at the fair (which maybe goes on just a tad too long) segues into the quiet bedroom where Robert and Francesca are holding each other. Again, we hear the cello's sweet melancholy and they sing about "Who We Are and Who We Want to Be" with a melody line that is just meltingly beautiful.      

Francesca recalls her youth in Italy, so different from plain Iowa, and in this astounding score, Brown has given her an echo of Puccini and opera in "Almost Real." As her family returns home, Francesca ponders a decision, a choice between passion or faithfulness.

No matter how much additional material is brought to this story, it lives and dies on the two characters at the center and O'Hara and Pasquale create a romantic couple for the ages.

Her sweet soaring soprano and his soulful tenor (how is it possible this is Pasquale's Broadway musical debut?) build upon each other and blend emotion so brilliantly that the listener gratefully gets lost in one song after another.  

In the end, Bridges is a masterpiece because it successfully, achingly explores the eternal desire for love, for connection at the deepest level, and for discovering in love your authentic self in the world. You owe it to yourself to experience this show.

No comments:

Post a Comment