BY DAVID KENNERLEY | In the 1990s, “The Bridges of Madison County” emerged a kind of a cultural juggernaut. The shamelessly lovey-dovey novel by Robert James Waller, on the New York Times bestseller list for three years, sold more than 50 million copies worldwide. The film, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood (who also directed), was a huge hit. Record albums, coffee table books, T-shirts, a fragrance line, and other tie-in merchandise soon followed.
Even Oprah Winfrey filmed her show on location from the covered bridge in Iowa where the fictional story was set, proclaiming the novel “one of the most romantic, stirring tales of true love I’ve ever read.” Sales skyrocketed.
Despite it’s massive popularity, critics were at loggerheads over the merits of the work. Some felt the story, about an Italian-born farm wife who has a steamy four-day tryst with a roving National Geographic photographer while her husband and teenage kids are away at a State Fair in 1965, was farfetched. Many dismissed the novel, with its contrived dialogue and vapid characters, as sentimental slush with literary pretentions.
Iconic love story about a farm wife and a stranger revamped for the stage
Others hailed it as a masterwork that distilled timeless themes of passion, second chances, loyalty, and regret. The film expunged certain mawkish elements, but not all of them.
So the hotly anticipated arrival of the musical “The Bridges of Madison County” on Broadway begs the question — did book writer Marsha Norman (“The Color Purple”) and director Bartlett Sher (“Golden Boy”) succeed in locating the authentic, churning passion and circumvent the sappiness?
Believe it or not, the answer is a resounding yes. The bittersweet, operatic character study, now playing at the Schoenfeld Theatre, is a winner on every level.
The key, of course, is getting the casting just right. And the leads, the superb Kelli O’Hara as Francesca, the unfulfilled wife, and hunky Steven Pasquale as Robert, the desultory photojournalist searching for something more, with their powerhouse vocals and well-honed acting chops, fit the bill rather nicely. What’s more, the appealing couple has the requisite smoldering chemistry that erupts at crucial moments.
Sure, these characters are younger than in the book and film, but now it’s more believable that Francesca might ditch her family to forge a new life with Robert. Bottom line: they completely draw us in and fiercely express the thrill, doubt, and turmoil that an illicit love affair can bring.
That’s quite a contrast to their recent outing together in “Far From Heaven” Off Broadway, where the duo played an unhappy husband and wife torn apart. Not only were their pained characters disconnected, but so was the audience from the drama unfolding onstage.
The supporting cast in “Bridges” is fine as well. Hunter Foster, as the overworked, underappreciated farmer husband, reveals notes of vulnerability beneath a crusty exterior. Cass Morgan’s Marge starts out as the standard pesky neighbor, spying on Francesca and the “hippie” stranger who asked directions to a covered bridge he’s assigned to photograph, but evolves into a supportive friend, even an accomplice.
As portrayed by Caitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena, the children are more than just bickering brats. Both actors handily convey the plight of being stuck doing farm chores in the middle of nowhere and wanting to strike out on their own while honoring their parents.
The lush, gorgeous score, by Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years”), is brimming with soaring, plaintive ballads and some upbeat numbers as well, like a hootenanny. The thunderous, emotionally fraught duet “Falling Into You,” sung by Robert and Francesca, is a knockout, and Robert’s 11th-hour power ballad assessing what really matters in his life, “It All Fades Away,” will send chills down your spine.
But what really keeps this heavy tale of midlife crisis and lost love from collapsing under its own weight is Sher’s agile, inventive direction. Scenes and time periods overlap unexpectedly. Minor characters break into surprisingly affecting songs. In fact, the entire enterprise is peppered with unpredictable, complex counterpoints and incongruities that amp up the emotional power. This ain’t no “Kinky Boots.”
And while there are no traditional song-and-dance numbers, the scene changes, handled by cast members, are impressively choreographed. This underscores the fantasy-like quality and keeps the pace moving at a fast clip, imperative for a show that runs two-and-a-half hours with intermission.
Michael Yeargan designed the handsome yet skewed set, which combines elements of a realistic, homey 1960s farmhouse kitchen and bedroom with a surrealistic dreamscape. The covered bridge, for example, is suggested by a simple framework, allowing us to use our imagination to fill in the rest.
Perhaps the biggest revelation in this touching and lyrical “Bridges” is the selective use of levity. Awed by her astounding luck that Robert happened to appear out of nowhere in her driveway, Francesca wonders if “the Patron Saint of Iowa Housewives sent you to me.”
O’Hara delivered the line with finesse and it brought the house down. Not so much because it was a great joke, but because it was such an intense scene and the audience was so invested in the moment, the line offered a welcome burst of comic relief.
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY | Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 46th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $67-141; telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 30 min.; one intermission