Theatre Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY

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imagesThe Bridges of Madison County, a novel by Robert James Waller and then a film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Eastwood and Meryl Streep is another movie-turned musical on Broadway this season. First premiered at Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer, The Bridges of Madison County tells the story of Francesca, an Italian immigrant living in Winterset, Iowa with her husband Bud and their two children, and what happens when her family goes away to a state fair and a handsome National Geographic photographer asks her for directions to one of the covered bridges in her county.

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With gorgeous, lush songs by Jason Robert Brown and an occasionally funny book by Marsha Norman, the musical hits all the right notes for an adaptation of a love affair. From the opening song we see that Francesca’s life as not what she thought it would be when she grew up in Naples. Her children argue, her husband doesn’t fully appreciate her, and her neighbors are a little nosy. So when Robert Kinkade walks up her driveway (through the aisle of the Schoenfeld Theatre), his rugged good looks and strong baritone sweep her (and certain audience members) away.

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Their courtship is slow and tentative (even though it takes place over the course of four days) and is interrupted by phone calls from the road from Bud and the kids and appearances from Robert’s ex-wife, a Joni Mitchell-esque singer-waitress who sings in a coffee shop about love. Norman and Brown have collaborated on a love story that is as much about the people outside the relationship as the people inside. Bartlett Sher has cleverly staged the piece with representative set pieces that are wheeled on and off stage by members of the ensemble and with townspeople ever present in seats along the wings. We in the audience are constantly reminded that a town bustles around this farmland. Kelli O’Hara is stunning as Francesca and her transformation from buttoned up Iowa housewife to woman in love is believable and satisfying. Cass Morgan is terrific as Marge, her nosy neighbor, and Hunter Foster does well with the unsympathetic husband who brought her back to Iowa after meeting her in 1948 in Italy.

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The only real flaw with this musical is the length. The second act drags a little in comparison to a very neat first act, and the epilogue (despite some beautiful songs) feels like too much. What could have been a swirling whirlwind romance feels somewhat bloated and unsatisfying by the end, which might reflect Francesca’s experience in Iowa, but shouldn’t necessarily be inflicted on the audience.

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THEATRE REVIEW by Kate Mulley