Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Broadway Theater Review: The Bridges of Madison County

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 music is well bodied and layered and O'Hara, who has one of the finest sopranos on Broadway (Sher directed her in Light in the Piazza and South Pacific), is always a delight to hear. Pasquale, making his Broadway musical debut, takes his place as a silver-voiced leading men. Catherine Zuber designs the costumes that put us in the period, though no one looks sweaty enough. I have been to the the bridges of Madison County in the middle of summer, and let me tell you, it's HOT.

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/

Christians might also like to know:
--Lord's name taken in vain
--Sexually suggestive lyrics
-- Nudity

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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