Nora Dominic ‘17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
The Schoenfeld Theatre in New York City has been stripped down to the bone. A large oak tree, four chairs, barn-red walls and a sunset inhabit the stage. With this simple setting as the backdrop, Kelli O’Hara makes her entrance and immediately blows the audience away with the operatic opening number, “To Build a Home.”
The Bridges of Madison County premiered on Broadway on February 20, 2014 directed by Bartlett Sher. This is the third time Sher has directed O’Hara on Broadway; previously, he directed her Tony-nominated performances in The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific. Sher himself picked up the 2008 Tony Award for Best Director for South Pacific.
This time around, he has teamed up with incredible composer Jason Robert Brown, who is no stranger to the Broadway stage. Best known for his Off-Broadway hit, The Last 5-Years and the 1998 Tony Award-winner, Parade, Brown is considered one of the best composers of our generation, and The Bridges of Madison County is another amazing score he can add to his list of accomplishments.
Adapted from the novel by Robert James Waller, The Bridges of Madison County tells the story of Francesca (Kelli O’Hara), an Italian immigrant living in Madison County, Iowa with her husband, Bud (Hunter Foster), and her two teenage children, Michael and Carolyn (Derek Klena and Caitlin Kinnunen).
One day, Bud takes Michael and Carolyn to the state fair, leaving Francesca home alone. She soon engages in an affair with National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale) who is visiting Madison County to create a photo essay on the covered bridges in the area. The storyline is very one dimensional, and the scenes with Bud, Michael, and Carolyn seem to just fill space to make the musical longer and give those characters a story. In Waller’s book, Francesca’s family is absent. While the musical does a decent job of creating storylines for Bud, Michael and Carolyn, it is distracting from the more engaging plot surrounding Francesca and Robert.
Although the family’s narrative falls short, the romance between Francesca and Robert leaves audiences on the edge of their seats and in tears. The chemistry between O’Hara and Pasquale hasn’t been seen on Broadway in a long time. Reviving a love connection that they shared once before in the the Off-Broadway production of Far From Heaven, their chemistry lights up the stage as they perform Francesca and Robert’s budding romance. The stunning music by Brown acts as the two characters’ inner monologue as they sneak around the small town of Madison, visiting covered bridges, and simply enjoying each other’s company.
As the romance blooms between Francesca and Robert, so does Brown’s music and score. His song “One Second and a Million Miles” will soon become the quintessential Broadway love song. It comes at a time when Francesca must either choose to stay with her family or run away with Robert. With Pasquale beginning the song acapella and O’Hara joining with her elegant and booming operatic voice, one can’t help but swoon over this love story. Brown’s songs carry the show, and with any hope, secure him another Tony nomination. Coming straight from Kinky Boots, it is refreshing to see music that mimicked classic Broadway.
With a small cast of only sixteen, outstanding performances are easy to spot, especially when they happen to be the main character. Kelli O’Hara’s stunning portrayal of Francesca could possibly mark the actress’s first Tony win. From beginning to end, O’Hara belts music that seems to have been waiting for her to sing. O’Hara is no stranger to the Broadway stage, boasting four Tony Award nominations already, but when she opens her mouth to sing, not only is the love between Francesca and Robert believable, but also O’Hara’s love for the music itself. With a résumé and voice like this, it’s no wonder she is the standout in this quaint musical. This performance proves that audiences should be grateful to O’Hara for her part in the musical theater world.
Visually, this musical isn’t anything that hasn’t been seen on Broadway before, but it does the musical justice. With limited set pieces reminiscent of Our Town by Thornton Wilder, the ensemble sits around the edge of the scene and watches the romance unfold, moving the set pieces on and off, conveying the tightness of Madison Country’s people.
Between the incredible music by Jason Robert Brown, Kelli O’Hara’s amazing voice, and the iconic love story, this musical will surely become an instant classic. If you are in the New York area, be sure to check out The Bridges of Madison County at the Schoenfeld Theatre. You won’t want to miss it (and be sure to bring a box of tissues).