Go ahead, pillory Robert James Waller’s slender bestselling 1992 novel The Bridges of Madison County for the sentimental swill that it is. Call it trite, call it simple-minded. But you really can’t blame Waller for the dull and long-winded doings at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, home to the musical adaptation of Waller’s book (though of course he did plant the seed for all the corn).
No, you’ve really got to call out Marsha Norman, who wrote the effortful libretto, and Jason Robert Brown, the fellow responsible for a score that can be described as soaring only in the sense that it’s got lots and lots of high notes. Audiences are so very, very lucky that the incandescent Kelli O’Hara is the one singing the lugubrious songs of ineffable longing and of passionate love come late.
She’s Francesca Johnson, an Italian war bride (oddly, O’Hara makes her sound more Norwegian than Neapolitan). A dutiful wife to Bud, an Iowa farmer (the very good Hunter Foster), and a devoted mother to two bickering, unappealing teenagers, Francesca is full of a yearning she doesn’t quite understand – a vague sense that there’s got to be a bit more to life than the one she’s got in mid-1960s middle America where, as she notes, “people are either working or looking out their windows.”
When the show begins, Bud is trying to corral the young’uns and the livestock for an early start to the state fair. It’s reminiscent of the Rodgers and Hammerstein movie except that the quadruped in question is daughter Carolyn’s prize steer rather than Pa’s stellar pig, and in this instance it’s mother rather than daughter who’s as restless as a willow in a windstorm. Think of Bridges as the story of Ma Frake staying behind with her pickles and mincemeat pie rather than hopping in the truck with the rest of the family.
So there Francesca is home alone savoring the quiet when up the drive comes a handsome stranger, Robert Kinkaid (Steven Pasquale), a photographer for National Geographic who’s on assignment to shoot a pictorial on the local covered bridges and who’s lost his way trying to find one of them. Francesca guides Robert to his destination, then invites him home for dinner where she cooks up some Italian specialties with ingredients – fennel! – that are too sophisticated for the palates of the locals. She’s smitten; he’s smitten. Where this is all leading is no place good for Francesca’s marriage. But she’s never felt like this before and neither has Robert. Can she leave her family and go off with the man she loves? Or is that just a bridge (of Madison County) too far.
The creative team has “opened” the story to include characters like Robert’s former wife (Whitney Bashor), who sings the haunting “Another Life,” the best number in the show, Marge, a nosy neighbor (think Gladys Kravitz from the sit-com Bewitched) and Marge’s good-natured husband. It all serves to give Bridges a whiff of Our Town, but seems like just so much excess freight. With her wonderfully expressive performance, O’Hara almost makes us care, but it takes more than one pair of hands to plow a field. “Iowa is so flat,” Francesca observes at one point. Yes, and so is this show.