We can leave the discussion as to why Robert James Waller’s “Harlequin-lite” 1992 best-seller “The Bridges of Madison County” has been crafted into a sweeping musical romance for another time. But it is safe to say that after a few tweaks, tucks and some needed cuts, the show, now in its world premiere preview at Williamstown before its spring 2014 Broadway bow, will gain a loyal and devoted following.
’The Bridges of Madison County’
WHERE: Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, Mass.
WHEN: Through Aug. 18
HOW MUCH: $70
MORE INFO: 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org
The novel, a slightly insipid story of a four-day affair between a married, lonely Italian Iowa farm woman and a world-wise photographer, is overly wistful, romantic and sentimental, but also blessedly brief.
The musical, book by Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner Marsha Norman and score by Tony winner Jason Robert Brown, improves on the syrupy soap opera that pervades the book, but loses the book’s best asset — its brevity.
Still, Norman and Brown have done an admirable job creating a richer environment for the story. Creating new characters, fleshing out only-mentioned ones and building outside tensions to help deflect the unbridled happiness of the main couple, are welcome additions.
Brown has written a terrific score, perhaps even better than his Tony winning “Parade.” Pushing his signature piano-driven sound to the rear, Brown masterfully plays with various styles with the right amount of Prairie twang. Even better are his orchestrations — not overdone, not too spare. The lyrics may ooze a bit with too many romantic redundancies, but that could easily be neatened up and snipped.
As the star-crossed couple Robert and Francesca, Steven Pasquale and Elena Shaddow manage to quell the inherent schmaltz in the tale and sing with true passion. Full voiced and remarkably powerful, Pasquale has never been more commanding. “The World Inside a Frame” and Act 2’s “It All Fades Away” feature his rich controlled baritone, warm and exciting, and when paired with Shaddow, the evening soars.
Shaddow may have more success bringing forward Francesca’s emotional struggles when singing than when not, but her vocal touch rings honest and heartfelt. Daniel Jenkins as husband Bud, Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin good neighbors Marge and Charlie, Caitlin Kinnunen and Nick Bailey as Francesca’s children each have a moment to shine, and shine they do. Whitney Bashor captivates in dual roles as ex-wife Marian and sister Chiara, nearly stopping each act with her character’s songs. Bashor’s haunting “Another Life” perfectly underscores the growing romance between Robert and Francesca and her Act 2 “He Forgave Me” is played with the right comic touch.
The design of the show is outstanding. Donald Holder’s artful ever-changing lighting highlights Michael Yeargan’s stark Iowa landscape. Coupled with Catherine Zuber’s clever clothing eye, the time and setting is well placed and perfect. Director Bartlett Sher again proves his genius, with the physical movement of the piece and the nuanced modulation of the emotional through-line of the evening.
Despite how beautiful the show may look and sound, the fact the dramatic arc of the evening ends a full 30 minutes before the curtain falls, cannot be disguised. The “When I’m Gone” sequence in Act 2 wandered unfocused for too long. And despite the well-played strings in the pit, (under the strong baton of music director Tom Murray), when the closing moments of the play finally arrived, not a string in my soft heart was plucked nor did my tear ducts tremble. Maybe it’s my own cold heart, but I remember trying to hide tears and mumbling something about “allergies” as I exited the film adaptation of “Bridges.” When last tested, I was allergic only to penicillin, so my guess is I was moved.
And while the emerging musical adaptation may lack that tragic twinge in the book, and more so in the film, it certainly captures the wistful sense of love — found, lost, remembered — that attracted audiences to the material in the past.
If you are a lover of fine theatrical craft, a great new score and can get your hands on a ticket, I would strongly urge you to do so.