Hearts are broken in the Broadway musical version of The Bridges of Madison County, but the tears hardly show. The great director Bartlett Sher and the composer Jason Robert Brown have finally found a way to wash away the weepy sentimentality and corny soap-opera romance-novel detritus that plagued the book and movie to my discontent. Nothing lachrymose here. I didn’t hear any sobs in the orchestra, either. Kelli O’Hara, as Francesca, the Italian immigrant who found a home in the Iowa farmlands but never really acclimated, and Steven Pasquale, as Robert Kincaid, the Texas-born National Geographic photographer who stops to ask directions and stays to fall in love, have dusted off the emotional baggage, toughened up the heartstrings and opted for strength and pragmatism instead of crying in their beer. In this production, they prefer brandy.
Blame it on the moon. Blame it on the bossa nova. Or just blame me. The fact is, I never understood the slobber over the book by Robert James Waller, and although the movie was a vast improvement, directed with slavish sincerity and acted with a face of hard marble by Clint Eastwood as though posing for a permanent resting place on Mt. Rushmore, I couldn’t figure out what the women in the dark movie house were blubbering about. When bad reviews poured in for the book, a whole literary support group formed to keep it going. “Have you reached page 40 yet?” and “Stock a whole new supply of Kleenex; a nickel pack won’t do!” were the watch cries. Intrigued, I finally read it on a trip to Hawaii and remembered throwing it disgustedly into the lavatory trash bin. I assume it now lies somewhere with the fish on the bottom of the Pacific, where it belongs. Most men seem to agree; one cynic analyzed it at the time of publication as “a fantasy trip for menopausal women who need to get laid.”
Mr. Sher’s take is so meticulous and studied that it doesn’t deserve the same dismissal. Some folks object to the way he has “opened up” the material, moving beyond what was basically a two-hander during four days in a farmhouse in 1965, to make way for a big cast that moves in and out of the action, expanding the scope to include a picnic, a hotel in a neighboring state, the home of Francesca’s neighbors, a barbecue, a trip to the local ice cream parlor and the Indiana state fair, where Francesca’s husband and two teenage children have gone to show a prize steer. In their absence, a tanned, manly wanderer pulls up in a pickup truck, looking for the last of seven picturesque covered bridges he has been assigned to shoot. He stays for a home-cooked meal, and a love affair cautiously, then passionately grows, changing their lives forever.
With all due respect to Kelli O’Hara, I reluctantly confess that she does not entirely convince as an Italian. The ugly brown wig is disconcerting, and in the kind of role that came naturally to Anna Magnani, she struggles with the accent the same way Meryl Streep did on film. But there’s no mistaking that glorious voice uplifted in song like a butterfly fluttering its way across a garden. Mr. Pasquale, who also shared the stage with Ms. O’Hara in the ill-fated Far From Heaven, is a powerful match. Jason Robert Brown, a talented and versatile composer-lyricist who still does not know how to write a song anyone can go away singing, has somehow managed to provide them with solos and duets that soar majestically. “Falling Into You,” the gorgeous ballad that closes the first act, showcases both voices superbly. (This is one of those scores that will probably grow on me with repeated encores of the original cast album.) And Marsha Norman’s book gives everyone a chance to speak directly from the heart, shifting moods and blending time frames the way a film uses lap dissolves. Those annoying flashbacks that seesawed back and forth after the woman’s death, through the pages of her journals, have been clearly and straightforwardly “fixed,” with the two stars bathed in the rapturous glow of hollandaise.
My only objection is that the entire production is so stylized, often to the point of distraction. The constant movement of the other cast members—moving lumber, changing props, rolling door frames, wandering in and out of the set in the middle of other people’s scenes—challenges the focus. For example, while they’re making dinner together, Robert mentions his unhappy first marriage. Suddenly, his ex-wife enters the scene, pulls up a chair, picks up Robert’s guitar and warbles a Joni Mitchell-type folk song called “Another Life.” Whitney Bashor sings it very well, but what’s the point? Using songs as musical illustrations to illuminate thoughts or memories is a device that only undervalues the songs themselves.
Still, the art of distilling a work of feeling and substance from banal material is so thrilling to see and hear that I can forgive almost anything. Mr. Sher, who also directed Ms. O’Hara in the masterpiece Light in the Piazza, can get sexual tension out the scraping of a carrot. The bed scenes are discreetly coy but unbuttoned and ready to go. Miraculously, the show manages to make a point about how we are all the sum of the choices we make in life—and beyond death.
The Bridges of Madison County is really about a lonely man who learns how to feel too late and a repressed woman who has always felt too much, opening up to each other not the sin of adultery, but a new world of ecstasy neither has known before, finding in each other what has been missing from their lives. The lump in the throat comes when love gives in to reason and passion is replaced by responsibility and moral turpitude. In the movie, Ms. Streep cried so much she made Margaret O’Brien look like a gun moll. This version, lighting up a flare on Broadway, is a treat for people conditioned to more tempo. Women may still leave The Bridges of Madison County with hormones raging, but the men they drag along will no longer head for the exits scratching their heads.