If Kelli O’Hara sounds a bit operatic at the outset of The Bridges of MadisonCounty, don’t hold it against her: the diction and delivery are perfectly appropriate for her character, a Second World War bride transplanted to the flat and uneventful fields of Iowa, circa 1965. Though happily attached to her ex-GI husband, Bud (Hunter Foster, acing another good ol’ boy role), and two fractious teenage children (Derek Klena and wonderfully tense Caitlin Kinnunen), Francesca longs for her native Napoli, where random outpourings of excess emotion would seem to be standard fare on every street corner.
Those of us who’ve read Robert James Waller’s 1992 bestselling novella (there was a time when every bed-and-breakfast in the land proffered a bedside copy) or caught the 1995 Streep and Eastwood movie version will stand forewarned that Francesca might be harboring more than homesickness. She’s also got a bad case of the bored-housewife blues, so when her family takes off for a state fair, prize bull in tow, and Robert, a hunky National Geographic photojournalist (the excellent Steven Pasquale) just happens to stop by in search of picturesque photo ops – covered bridges, really? – Francesca is ripe for the plucking.
Thus reduced, the scenario stacks up as regulation Harlequin fare. What’s miraculous is how much mileage book writer Marsha Norman manages to eke from subtle interpersonal exchanges before, during and after the affair. Also propulsive is Jason Robert Brown’s score, staggeringly original even as he pays homage, in passing, to various classic American genres. Whitney Bashor as Marian, Robert’s ex-wife, finesses a Joni Mitchell-esque ballad about an infatuation gone flat, and Cass Morgan, playing Francesca’s prying neighbor, Marge, kills with a Patsy Cline-style torch song, “Get Closer.”
Director Bartlett Sher keeps the scenic elements and supernumeraries in near-constant motion: it’s like watching a barn-raising. The milling figures act as a tacit tribunal, a reminder of the lack of privacy that can plague small-town life. Marge herself serves as a kind of Everywoman chorus – tut-tutting over the shenanigans she imagines transpiring next-door, while not so secretly envying the supposed rapture and using it to test the strength of her own marriage. That her unflappable husband (Michael X. Martin) responds so very satisfactorily proves pure gravy.
But what of the lovers, whose folie à deux can’t possibly last? The amoral moral tacked on at the end, the chastened transgressors’ insistence that “love is always better,” feels de trop, heavy-handed. Far stronger to end on the melancholic torment of Robert’s heartbreak aria, “It All Fades Away.”