Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Glorious Music, Sung Gloriously

Review: The Bridges of Madison County

If Kelli O'Hara doesn't win the Tony for her work in Bridges, there is no justice in the world.

They simply don't make them like this anymore.  The Bridges of Madison County, the musical adaptation of the bestselling book currently playing the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, is the type of sweeping musical drama that has fallen out of favor in recent yearsUnabashedly earnest in its sentiment, the exquisitely scored Bridges features two central performances so transcendent they more than compensate for the musical's occasional listlessness via the sheer intensity of their star wattage.

The musical focuses on a brief but intense affair between Italian-American housewife Francesca (a positively radiant Kelli O'Hara) and National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (the smoldering Steven Pasquale, in his Broadway musical debut).  A war bride brought back to Madison County, Iowa by blue collar farmer Bud (Hunter Foster), Francesca has spent two decades being the dutiful wife and mother, so complacent in her role that she doesn't even realize how unfulfilled she feels.  When Robert innocently asks Francesca for directions to one of the titular covered bridges, a simple invitation to tea blossoms into a passionate, all-consuming love that forces Francesca to re-examine every choice she's ever made.

The material could easily descend in schmaltzy sentimentality, but never does thanks to the incredible contributions of composer Jason Robert Brown.  Brown rocketed to fame on the strength of his Broadway debut Parade, and his small but sterling body of work since then has only reconfirmed his early promise as one of the theatre's finest tunesmiths.  Brown's work on Bridges is that of a fully matured artist, able to write music that is irrefutably gorgeous in its own right while also perfectly servicing plot and character development.  He possesses a rare, precise understanding of the full potential of the human voice, and continually shows his knack for writing conversational yet deeply profound lyrics. Bridges finds Brown equally adept at writing lilting, mournfully introspective songs like "Another Life" (a knockout solo for, of all characters, Robert's ex-wife) and soaring, operatic duets like "One Second and a Million Miles" (the musical highlight of the evening, and possibly the entire Broadway season).  It is a staggering achievement, the kind of richly complex score that only comes around once every few years.

The fact that Marsha Norman's libretto for Bridges doesn't reach the dizzying heights of Brown's score is disappointing, although likely unavoidable given the virtuosic intensity of the songs.  Norman tries to expand the scope of the story beyond the central lovers, inserting subplots about Francesca's family traveling to the Iowa State Fair and a prying but ultimately supportive neighbor.  While interesting in theory, these subplots have a nebulous connection to the main story and aren't developed enough to be engaging in their own right.  Norman does an excellent job of establishing Francesca's disconnection from her family, to the point where the show doesn't give her a valid reason for not immediately running off with Robert (the show's primary source of dramatic conflict).  The script also hints at deeply rooted problems between Bud and his kids but fails to truly explore them, with the eventual resolution of these problems feeling forced and unsatisfactory.

Thankfully, the cast more than makes up for the script's shortcomings.  As Francesca, four-time Tony-nominee Kelli O'Hara is a revelation, giving the most nuanced performance of her illustrious career.  Through the subtlest glance or bit of stage business, O'Hara illuminates the myriad conflicting feelings going on inside Francesca, a free spirit who willingly entered into a mundane marriage and is finally confronting the consequences.  O'Hara makes Francesca's inner life readily apparent, creating a wholly sympathetic creature from a woman who in lesser hands would be easy to judge harshly.  And when she opens her mouth to sing, O'Hara reveals a vocal mastery on par with the greatest singers to ever grace the Broadway stage.  Her crystalline soprano has never been stronger, rich and soulful as it traverses the soaring heights and unexpected depths of Brown's score.  The fact that O'Hara has yet to be rewarded with Broadway's highest honor seems somewhat ludicrous given the unending reservoir of talent on display here, and hopefully this will finally be her year when the Tony Awards are handed out in June.

Surprisingly, Steven Pasquale proves every bit her equal, and watching his masterful portrayal of the lone wolf photographer makes one regret he hasn't had the opportunity to star in a Broadway musical before now.  Pasquale imbues Robert with a quiet charisma and smoldering sensuality that is intoxicating, easily explaining why Francesca would be drawn to him.  As O'Hara does with Francesca, Pasquale gives such a clear view into Robert's inner life that you instantly understand every choice he makes.  A beautiful sincerity permeates his entire performance, preventing the character from coming across as a predatory lout.  And when Pasquale unleashes his powerful baritone, the sheer force and beauty of it sends shivers down the spine.

Director Bartlett Sher stages the show with his typical precision, coaxing uniformly fantastic performances out of his cast.  As with his previous shows, Sher is occasionally seduced by the beauty of his material, letting certain moments last one beat too long.  The final fifteen minutes of the show drag (although this partly stems from the writing), and the constant scenery changes eat up too much of the evening's running time.  But credit must be given where credit is due; performances of the caliber O'Hara and Pasquale give don't just happen, and without Sher to help guide and mold them the two actors wouldn't be nearly as effective in their roles.

The fact that a maudlin novel like The Bridges of Madison County has been turned into such a powerful piece of art is a minor miracle, and despite some small missteps it makes for a worthwhile night in the theatre.  Kelli O'Hara proves once again that she is among the best singing actresses of all time, giving the kind of deeply felt, nuanced performance that theatrical legends are made of.  Steven Pasquale matches her note for note, and together they have a fiery chemistry that makes Jason Robert Brown's sterling compositions truly soar.  In an age of revivals and disposable works of escapist entertainment, it is truly refreshing to see and hear such a serious new musical on Broadway.

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