"The Bridges of Madison County," a new musical based on the James Robert Waller bestseller of the same name, is finishing up a nearly sold-out tryout at the Williamstown Theatre Festival as it progresses toward a Broadway opening in early 2014. The marquee is up and advance tickets are apparently being sold, demonstrating the confidence the producers and the creators have in their material.
And deservedly so. Director Bartlett Sher, responsible for such Broadway successes as the recent revival of "South Pacific," the premiere of "The Light in the Piazza," and two stirring productions of Clifford Odets' revivals ("Golden Boy" and "Awake and Sing") has put together a pristine, frequently moving production that will no doubt please fans of the book (and the subsequent Meryl Streep-Clint Eastwood film) and reward those new to the story.
In addition to Sher, the composer-lyricist, Jason Robert Brown ("The Last Five Years" and "Parade") and the Pulitzer Prize winning book writer Marsha Norman ("'Night Mother" and "The Secret Garden') are also at the top of their game. They have transformed a novel that focuses almost in its entirety on just two individuals into a slightly more expansive musical that opens up the action to encompass several other characters mentioned in Waller's original and introduces two others to provide some perspective and welcome comic relief.
Brown has created a lush, melodic almost operatic score that aims to reveal the passion of its characters, particularly the two main protagonists, Francesca, the Italian born Iowa housewife who wonders if she has made the right choices in her life, and Robert, a veteran photographer from New York assigned to capture the beauty of Iowa's covered bridges. They meet by chance one day while Francesca's family is away at the state fair and find themselves inexorably drawn to each other, allowing Brown to create rich, emotional ballads that have the potential to sear a viewer's heart with their intensity.
Of course, it helps that the two leads are played by two remarkable performers, the exquisite Elena Shaddow as the quietly determined Francesca and a virile Steven Pasquale in a role that allows him to express a confident masculinity through motion and voice. Shaddow quite profoundly captures the Italian background and sensitivity of her character and handles her songs with a strong, powerful voice. Shaddow will be going on to the Broadway production as the standby for Kelli O'Hara who is scheduled to play Francesca, but it is hard to believe that anyone could match Shaddow for the acuity and sharpness of her performance. If O'Hara is ever out, Broadway audiences will be getting more than their money's worth with Shaddow stepping in. Hers is a heartfelt and heartbreaking performance that anchors the musical in a shattering realism.
Pasquale has really never been better, in part because "Bridges" gives him ample opportunities to shine. Here, he's a far cry from the intellectually challenged fireman of "Rescue Me" and the tormented secretly gay husband in "Far From Heaven" in which he and O'Hara starred last summer at Williamstown. He demonstrates Robert's simple decency and concern in a believable manner, one that I am sure appeals to the romantic in the story's female fans. But his performance will appeal to men in the audience as well, as conveys an underlying ruggedness tempered by the disappointments of his life. And his singing voice is given opportunities it's never had before and he comes through marvelously.
Norman and Brown provide a counterpoint to Robert and Francesca's growing attraction by following Francesca's family's experiences at the state fair, particularly as her son and daughter grapple with typical teenage angst and opportunities at this significant juncture with their lives. Daniel Jenkins is sturdy as Francesca's hard working farmer husband, Bud, who does probably take his wife for granted in a loving way typical of the mid-1960's time frame of the show. Nick Bailey is good at depicting adolescent rebellion as the rambunctious but good-hearted son Michael and Caitlin Kinnunen is touching and convincing as daughter Carolyn who experiences typical teenage issues of self-esteem and self-confidence as she shows her prize animal at the fair. The teenagers' songs are more light-hearted and playful, while Bud's songs reveal an emotional depth and decency as he strives to be the appropriate provider and protector of his family.
Two new characters created for the musical are Marge and Charlie, the next door neighbors who keep an eye on Francesca while her family is away. While they both see more than they should, they remain protective of Francesca, with Marge rather heroically coming to Francesca's aid at a significant moment. As played by the marvelous Cass Morgan, Marge provides much of the evening's comic relief as she peeks through her curtains while also fantasizing about her own reaction should a handsome but lost photographer come up her driveway looking for directions. Michael X. Martin is fine as the wise and proper Charlie who tries to keep his wife in line while reminding her that what is going on next door is none of their business. Brown does provide Morgan with a lovely solo infused with a country style called "Get Closer" accompanied by some singers on the radio.
Also quite astonishing is Whitney Bashor who shows up at two different times at two completely different characters, so much so that it's hard to recognize her from one role to the other. She has a great solo in a first act flashback as Marian, Robert's former love, trying to understand the distance she encounters in their relationship, and then turns up again in a series of flashbacks as Francesca's sister Chiara, who lived la dolce vita in Italy while growing up and has never quite understood her sister's willingness to settle for the young American serviceman Bud who eventually took her to Iowa.
Michael Yeargan's set captures the expansiveness of the characters' feelings and of the Iowa plains as well. A series of benches and tables populate the various locations which are depicted by walls that easily slide in and out. Three large wooden arches that drop from the flies that help underline the symbolic importance of the covered bridge to Francesca and Robert's memories. Lighting designer Donald Holder uses a variety of colors and shades that support the passion and yearning at the heart of the story, with brilliantly hued backdrops representing the expansive horizons and subtle changes in interior lighting revealing a growing intimacy between the lead characters. Catherine Zuber's costumes capture the essence of farm and prairie life in the 60's, while showcasing the sexual appeal of the two protagonists. The rich, full orchestrations are by Brown himself and are indeed one of the highlights of the production.
This being a tryout, the musical doesn't completely coalesce, however. There is a section in the second act, when the family returns from the state fair, that stops the lushness and elegance of the show right in its tracks. Yes, this is necessary exposition that is essential to heighten the stakes for Robert and Francesca, but the story tends to lose its pacing and at this point relegates Robert to the background, with him reduced to being almost a castrated lurker, rather than the frustrated but understanding man we know him to be at that point.
"The Bridges of Madison County" will no doubt appeal to a certain type of audience looking to reconnect with a favorite story and perhaps anxious for a good cry, although certain elements of the story toward the end happen a bit too fast for the emotional resonance to sink in. It is different enough from the book and film adaptation to also provide some surprises to audiences and Sher has paced the show so meticulously that it moves along in an engrossing manner. It really is a chamber musical at heart, but one with such large emotions, such great passions and such marvelous, all-encompassing performances that it demands a Broadway venue to accommodate the range and scope of its ambitions.
"The Bridges of Madison County" plays at Williamstown through Sunday, August 18. It is scheduled to begin previews on Broadway on January 13, 2014.
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