Why is it that certain undeserving shows seem to run now and forever, while more thoughtful and beautiful works close before they can be fully appreciated? Such was the question that ran through my mind as I took in a performance of ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ the weekend before it was set to close. As written by the brilliant Jason Robert Brown (‘Parade’, ‘Songs for a New World’) the raved-about score does indeed prove ‘gorgeously rapturous,’ and the lead performances are nothing short of magnificent. This is a show that must be heard in its entirety to fully capture the emotional arc of its characters. It builds from its slightly mournful opening notes, into a sweeping, lush masterpiece, with touches of bouncing country bits and soaring operatic flourishes – a strange juxtaposition of Iowa and Italy that somehow works.
While this rendition of the popular but oft-maligned book is almost immaculately faithful to its source (at odds with its subject matter), a musical version of the tale sounded, on paper at least, less than thrilling. Yet it is precisely the power of the music that finally makes this story about more than a cheating housewife. ‘Bridges’ tells the narrative of Francesca Johnson, a married housewife, and Robert Kincaid, a photographer traveling through her town, and how they fall in love and deal with the aftermath of that.
It is a tough tale to sell, and only the most accomplished actress and singer could make Francesca into a heroine for whom the audience roots. Kelli O’Hara is more than up to the task, and her Francesca transforms from a woman whose main duty in life has been sacrifice, to a woman giving gratefully, if reluctantly, over to her desires. As she loosens her hair and unties her apron, Francesca comes alive in discovering her love for Robert, even as she acknowledges the pull of her husband and family.
The success of this production relies upon both her and the audience being torn. It’s not enough for her husband to be the proverbial bad-guy, and he isn’t. A bit bland perhaps, harried to the point of anger at times, but it’s still not enough to fully support Francesca’s choosing the sexy stranger ~ played with equally winning spirit (in equally fine voice) by Steven Pasquale. As Robert, Mr. Pasquale begins a bit in the dark, emerging from the back of the theater, lost literally and perhaps figuratively, before finding himself, and a focus, in Francesca. Even so, the story requires something more to be truly moving, something to convey a love that is more than excitement or kindness or sensitivity, and that added element – the one that solves the initially-insurmountable yet undeniable fact of adultery – comes in the unlikely form it has taken: a musical.
I can’t tell you I know what the answer will be – it’s impossible, but this thing, this is bigger than what we can see.
This is destiny. We are tied, we are locked, we are bound.
This will not be reversed or unwound.
Whatever fate the stars are weaving, we’re not breaking, I’m not leaving…
It’s the music that supplies the solution to the moral dilemma, and the songs Francesca shares with Robert (‘One Second and A Million Miles’) are what make ‘Bridges’ such a compelling, and devastating, production. It may not entirely eradicate the blame, but it makes it gorgeously relatable, inevitable in fact.
Francesca’s actions aren’t simply an act of betrayal, they are a protection of her heart, a curious way of protecting her husband and her family, with whom she could only stay after having glimpsed another life. The love she shared with Robert is carried closer to her heart, burning quietly as her life goes on, in an exquisitely staged montage of temporal movement. The moral dilemma over whether it was right or wrong is not wholly solved with the ‘love is never wrong’ argument, but finds some minor resolution and come-uppance in the sad musing of ‘what-might-have-been.’
While the show is not perfect (moments ripe for greater emotional impact – Francesca and Robert’s first dance, for example – are initially given a comic, country angle when a more earnest delivery of the waltz that accompanied it may have made for greater impact), such trifles are minor compared to the emotional journey of the show, a journey matched and exalted by its music – the waves of which begin lapping softly and gently, growing into a pounding and gloriously overwhelming emotional climax that left even this hardened viewer, who was relatively unimpressed with the book, moved and affected.
The mark of artistic magic is in making the viewer empathize with something. ‘Bridges’ is the stuff of dreams almost-realized, of sacrifice and love, of safety and obligation. It’s a study of the difficult choices we must make, how we deal with those choices, how we come to terms with our decisions, and whether we will always wonder ‘what if…?’ This is a beautiful show, and though its challenging themes and somewhat-unhappily-ever-after ending does not send the audience out beaming or tapping toes, it leaves a deeper stamp upon their hearts.Back to Blog