“The Bridges of Madison County,” which is being given its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through August 18, is a musical that is often beautifully romantic. At other times the production boarders on the tedious and cloyingly sentimental.
The work, which is scheduled to open on Broadway in February of 2014, is based on the novel by Robert James Waller, which was also the source of the Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep film. Both were so popular there is probably a core audience that will automatically adore this musical adaptation.
Even those (like me) who find the material predictable and sometimes overwrought, will find it difficult not to be moved by the gorgeous score of Jason Robert Brown which defines characters and captures the emotional turmoil of two decent individuals who unintentionally fall in love knowing their love is doomed.
Too, there is no denying the emotional pull of the story about a four day love affair that touches lives forever. Anyone who has ever been in a loving relationship that is destined to fail will understand the heartbreak of the characters. And because the love between Robert and Francesca is so sincere and honest, many who have not had such an experience might feel they’ve been denied a life-altering experience.
Without denying the inherent charm of the material, it is not a story that should take three hours to tell. While there is hardly a song that is not a pleasure to hear, the long expositional aspects of the story tend to make Brown’s remarkable score seem repetitive. This is true mostly for the first act and a drawn out ending.
However, when the work focuses on the passion of the couple the music soars and the story is tender and touching. The second act duet “One Second More and a Million Miles” is breathtaking in its passion and Francesca’s solo “Almost Real” is as character defining as it is beautiful to hear. The same can be said for Robert’s first act “The World Inside a Frame.”
Brown is not only a great composer, he is a brilliant orchestrator and his lyrics create lovely stories within a story. By the way, the 9-piece pit orchestra, conducted by Tom Murray, is phenomenal as they bring an added lushness to a rich score.
Steve Pasquale is gentle, smart and sexy as Robert the National Geographic photographer who in1965 spends a couple of days in Madison County, Iowa to photograph their covered bridges. He is an exceptional actor with a dynamic singing voice who creates a finely etched portrayal of a loner who surprises himself at the depth of his love for Francesca.
In this Marsha Norman version of the story, Francesca is the focus of the work. She is an Italian World War II war bride, who lives a content life with a caring but dull husband (Daniel Jenkins) and two constantly quarreling kids (Caitlin Kinnunen and Nick Bailey). Elena Shaddow is lovely as the woman who discovers the dissatisfaction with her life and is courageous enough to grasp happiness and noble enough to sacrifice it up out of love for her family.
One of the strongest aspects of Norman’s book is the creation of Marge (Cass Morgan)and Charlie (Michael X. Martin) the long-married, neighbors who are happy with their simple existence. Having Morgan sing “Get Closer” as Robert and Francesca physically draw closer is a genius idea that defines the universality of longing.
The entire cast is ideal but special mention should be given to Whitney Bashor who gives a breakout performance singing the marvelous “Another Life” as Robert’s former wife and the touching “He Forgave Me’ as Francisca’s sister.
It’s all played on an awesome set designed by Michael Yeargan and period perfect costumes by Catherine Zuber. The most important technical success is the mood defining lighting by Donald Holder.
“The Bridges of Madison County” is an erratic and sometimes slow moving show but it is never the fault of director Bartlett Sher who ingenuously keeps the movement fluid and the focus of the show on the love between Francisca and Robert.
This is a superior production that sometimes falls victim to the flaws of the source material.
“The Bridges of Madison County” through August 18 at the mainstage of Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass.
Bob Goepfert is the arts editor for the Troy Record.
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