Kelli O'Hara should finally get her first Tony Award for "The Bridges of Madison County." Credit: Joan Marcus
Every adaptation of “The Bridges of Madison County” put its own mark on the story originally scribed by novelist Robert James Waller. That now includes the musical that opened on Broadway last week, which presents the tale in a way that’s both familiar and refreshingly new.
This is largely upheld by the haunting yet robust music of Jason Robert Brown. “Bridges” outlines the days leading up to a life-changing decision that must be made by a housewife torn between family and passion. The challenge for Brown, director Bartlett Sherr and book writer Marsha Norman is to make this progression believable at least, realistic at best. Some songs hold up better than others; most of the ballads can stand on their own, while the anthems seem like they would fall flat without context.
Kelli O’Hara is a shoo-in for her long overdue Tony as Francesca Johnson, an Italian immigrant who thought life in America would lead to more than cleaning and cooking — literally barefoot in the kitchen — in Iowa. Smoldering Steven Pasquale nearly blows the roof off with his where-have-you-been-all-my-life vocals as Robert Kincaid, a rogue photographer who’s in town to shoot the covered bridges.
And if these were the only two characters, it would honestly be enough. Sometimes the show feels like it’s only theirs, the way the world must feel when they’re together — but alas, reality seeps in. A few characters feel extraneous (ghosts from their respective pasts), while others usefully flesh out the plot and offer solos that almost steal the show (to wit, the doting neighbors). The only looming casting mishap are the teenage children, played by actors who look closer to 30.
But what’s truly unforgivable is a graceless denouement that will make you want to jump off your carefully constructed suspension bridge of disbelief. Shame on the apologists who decided to undermine the heart-hammering climax that the front half of the play worked so hard to do so well.
Thankfully the rousing music and riveting characters will have a dignified life in the echelons of musical theater, transcending any forgettable shortcomings in the final moments of the script.