Tweaked Book Provides Bridge to Background of Characters
By Lauren Yarger
Marsha Norman's book for the stage musical of The Bridges of Madison County gives us a better understanding of the characters everyone knows from Robert James Waller's bestselling novel and the movie based on it starring miscast Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.
Add to the book a score and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last Five Years, 13, Songs for a New World), not to mention the likes of Kelli O'Hara, Stevhen Pasquale and Hunter Foster lending their considerable singing voices, and we have quite an impressive musical trying to find a place on a Broadway stage.
Helping it are is of the Great White Way's freshest directors, Bartlett Sher. It all plays out against a vast Iowa backdrop that echoes the emotions of the characters, thanks to excellent lighting design by Donald Holder. Brown's lyrics, given almost operatic spans, help tell the story and explore the thoughts of the characters as they sing.
O'Hara is Francesca, a war bride who never has quite fit into the simple farming life she has shared with husband, Bud (Foster) after the soldier brought her home as his wife after meeting her in Italy. They've raised two children, Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Michael (Derek Klena), but for Francesca, there's always been something missing. She discovers what she has been longing for in Robert (Pasquale), a National Geographic photographer, who has come to shoot the famous bridges of Madison County for the magazine. They meet when Francesca's family is away at a neighboring state fair, and fall in love.
They have an affair, then grapple with what to do before the family returns. Robert has never been one to settle down and urges her to come away with him. Francesca has always wanted to travel and is bored on the farm, but can't quite come to grips with leaving her children, or hurting Bud, who always has been kind, if not exciting.
Their liaison doesn't go unnoticed by neighbors Marge (a delightful Cass Morgan) and Charlie (Michael X. Martin, who's a perfect straight man) and added to their dilemma is the question of how one or both of them would be able to stay in the wholesome, close-knit community not tolerant of scandal.
Norman's fully developed characters make us care about them and her exposition gives us a clear picture of why the characters -- all of them, not just the main ones -- are the way they are and how they feel -- something neither the film nor the original book did as well. The addition of Robert's ex wife, Marian (Whitney Bashor) who gets a song too, "Another Life," lets us see what Robert left behind and why it didn't work as he begins his relationship with Francesca.
Thankfully, we also get to hear Foster (Urinetown) sing as Norman keeps us up to date on what's happening with him and the kids through flashbacks, scenes at the fair and phone calls home. Bud is more present in this version than any of the others -- and that seems right to understand Francesca's tie to him.
Overall, I liked it -- more than I expected to, though there's room for improvement. The two-hour-and 40-minute run time is a bit on the long side and could easily be remedied by cutting the ending which seems to go on forever trying to put in everything that happens in the original story. If you're going to make changes to the book any way, why not eliminate a bummer of an ending? There are some odd direction choices, too. Sher has the cast taking seats on the edges of the action, which works in reminding us that Francesca and Robert have others -- yes a whole community -- to consider as they puzzle about their relationship, but doesn't work so much when a lone guitar player is left on stage to watch the couple get intimate in bed....
|Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale. Photo by Joan Marcus|
The Bridges of Madison County plays at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th St., NYC through May 18. http://www.broadway.com/shows/bridges-madison-county/
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