Brown's Music Takes Love Story a Bridge Too Far

By Stasio, Marilyn | Variety, February 25, 2014 | Go to article overview

Brown's Music Takes Love Story a Bridge Too Far


Stasio, Marilyn, Variety


very body knows that playwrights shouldn't direct their own plays. But composers might also think twice about doing their own orchestrations. In an intimate house, Jason Robert Brown's lushly melodic score for "The Bridges of Madison County" would seem a proper fit for Marsha Norman's book, which is gushy but more literate than Robert James Waller's mawkish 1992 novella about soulful lovers in a hopeless adulterous affair. But although Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale are in glorious voice as this passionate pair, the bombastic orchestrations and Bartlett Sher's overstated helming inflate the production into some quasi-operatic beast that thinks it's "Aida."

O'Hara's soaring dramatic soprano is sweet and true enough to earn her a pass on the atrocious accent she struggles with as Francesca Johnson, an Italian war bride slowly turning to dust as a farmer's wife in 1960s Iowa. It's harder to reconcile her youthful bloom with the character of a middle-aged housewife and worn-out mother of two teenagers, especially when those cornfed farm kids stand taller and look older than she does.

Casting young may have won the dynamic leads, but it also cost the production the powerful emotional tug of watching two middle-aged people work up the courage to make one last grasp at happiness - as both the original novel and the subsequent film adaptation starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep would have it.

Despite being miscast, the lovely O'Hara is a great match with Steven Pasquale ("Rescue Me"), whose good looks and dreamy tenor make an attractive hero of Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer assigned to do a feature on Iowa's famous covered bridges. Coming upon Francesca among the alien corn, the world-weary Robert is at first intrigued and then enchanted by this exotic flower, out of her element and parched for love.

Once they fall into one another's arms, there's no dearth of love songs in Brown's swoony score, although the histrionic approach too often shoves tender emotion over the cliff into high tragedy. Played against a color-drenched cyclorama of sunrises, sunsets, endless cornfields and infinite blue skies (all of this enhanced by Donald Holder's dramatic lighting design), the fragile intimacy of Francesca's and Robert's four-day love affair is in constant danger of being swallowed up by the vast emptiness of the landscape. …

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