Simplicity isn’t necessarily a virtue when it comes to Broadway’s musical romances. To fill up an evening of musical theater, love affairs usually have to be spiced with jokes, or complicated with plot twists, or forced to overcome conflicts of class, ethnicity or sexual confusion. The love story at the heart of Robert James Waller’s 1992 bestseller The Bridges of Madison County (and 1995 movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep) is about as simple as they come. An Iowa farm wife, left alone for four days while her husband and kids are off at a state fair, meets a traveling photographer, there to take pictures of the area’s famed covered bridges. They fall in love and have an affair. She considers running off with him, but when her husband and family return, opts instead for her responsibilities as a wife and mother. End of fling. End of story.
The surprise of The Bridges of Madison County, the pleasant new Broadway musical that opened Thursday night, is how well — even elegantly — it fills the stage. From the outset, the show embraces simplicity. It opens with Francesca (Kelli O’Hara) alone on the empty stage, singing a ballad that describes her journey from her native Italy, where she married an American serviceman just after World War II, to the cornfields of Iowa, where she has settled into a comfortable but unfulfilling family life. As she sings, the stage gradually fills with the trappings of that life — the outline of a roof, the frame of a window, a few sticks of furniture — trappings that can be disassembled just as easily, as her life nearly is by a once-in-a lifetime love affair.
Playwright Marsha Norman has opened up the small story in logical, if conventional, ways. As the relationship between Francesca and Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale) blossoms, scenes are interspersed of her husband and children, two rebellious teens in the mid-1960s, at the state fair, and there are flashbacks that fill in both Robert and Francesca’s back-stories. If the walk-up to the affair seems more forced and unconvincing than it did in the novel and movie, Francesca’s final rejection of Robert — a trip to town with husband and kids, a glimpse of him across the square, a fantasized embrace and then a cold return to reality — is staged beautifully by director Barlett Sher.
The show soars on its music and its performances. Jason Robert Brown is one of a generation of post-Sondheim theater composers who has not quite lived up to his promise: his show Parade, based on the Leo Frank case, was a commercial failure because no one really wanted to see a musical about a lynching, and his best show, The Last Five Years, only belatedly has become an off-Broadway cult hit. This is probably his finest score yet: lush, romantic, musically complex (a touch of Verdi, a dash of Copland, intriguing major-minor key changes), while still accessible and melodic. There’s enough variety to keep things from getting monotonous — a twangy Patsy Cline number for Francesca’s nosy next-door neighbor, a Joni Mitchell-like folk ballad for Robert’s first wife in flashback — and the big duets almost measure up to the grandiose lyrics: “You and I have just one second / And a million miles to go.”
As the couple, O’Hara and Pasquale make a Broadway dream team. O’Hara is a little younger and sexier than the fortyish matron of the novel (and has to fight with an obtrusive Italian accent), and Pasquale is more hunk than hippie (as the townspeople refer to him) as her paramour. But her lovely, milk-fresh soprano is one of the sweetest sounds on Broadway, and he matches her note for note with a warm and passionate tenor. They give off sparks.
If the show doesn’t entirely satisfy, it’s probably the inevitable result of translating the material from page to stage. The effectiveness of Waller’s tear-jerking bestseller lay in its reticence: the plainspoken spareness of the prose, the stolidity of the characters, the quiet poignancy of the framing story (in which Francesca’s children, years later upon her death, discover the letters that reveal the affair she long kept secret). Puffed up with operatic emotionality, dressed in Broadway finery and fleshed out with familiar family drama, the story seems both more ordinary and less moving. I heard plenty of enthusiastic (and deserved) applause at the end of the show. My guess, though, is there wasn’t a wet eye in the house.