The show's music by Jason Robert Brown is soaring, melodic, and at times haunting (the opening cello solo). His score is tinged with jazz, classical, country and other musical styles that give the music interest. His lyrics are complex and at times, unexpected. Brown stands out among today's young musical theatre writers as someone who is going to be with us for a long time and hasn't yet received the success for which he is destined.
The core success of this show lies with Brown's score and a performance by Kelli O'Hara. O'Hara continues to prove her immense talent at tackling a vocally demanding musical score and an emotionally complex character.
O'Hara is Francesca, an Italian immigrant who met her American husband while waiting for her boyfriend Paolo to come back from war. Paolo never returns and Francesca ends up marrying an Iowa farmer, Bud (played by the always dependable Hunter Foster).
Francesca devotes her life to her family, including two children, a boy Michael (played by Derek Klena) and a girl Carolyn, played at this performance by two different actresses, Caitlin Kinnunen in the first act and understudy Ephie Aardema in the second. The reason for the switch at intermission was not clear. One can only assume that either Ms. Kinnunen became ill or injured.
While Bud takes the couple's two children to the state fair to show the daughter's prize steer, Francesca plans a few quiet days at home. Instead she is visited by traveling National Geographic photographer, Robert, played by Steven Pasqualle. He is in search of the last of seven bridges he has been sent to photograph. It isn't long before the two are in each other's arms and the bored and lonely Francesca dares dream of a life beyond her lonely Iowa life.
It's hard to imagine that this is Pasqualle's first singing role on Broadway. His voice is so lovely and effortless and his chemistry with O'Hara is tangible. The two have a history together. They both starred last year in the off-Broadway production of Far From Heaven. It doesn't strain one's imagination to think that Pasqualle could be the next great leading man of musicals. The entire package is there.
In supporting roles, the very funny Cass Morgan is nosy next door neighbor and friend, Marge. Michael X. Martin is Charlie, Marge's husband. These characters are not necessarily integral to what happens. As the entire cast of the show lingers onstage to spy on what Francesca is doing, the idea that the walls have eyes, doesn't ever develop into a plot-point that has a purpose. Marian, Robert's ex-wife is played by Whitney Bashor with a Joni Mitchell quality to her performance. While she gave a good performance of wispy song, I found myself bored by another unnecessary character.
Director Bartlett Scher has beautifully utilized Michael Yeargan's minimalist and fleetly moving set in such a way that the performance doesn't lag at scene shifts. Yeargan uses simple units such as a bed, a countertop and cabinets, a window and kitchen sink, a door frame, or a full set of stairs, all on casters that move on and off swiftly with the help of the show's ensemble members, to create each scene's set. All of this is done against a backdrop of the Iowa countryside. The drop is beautifully lit with sunsets, sunrises and the gray of flashback scenes by lighting designer Donald Holder. As for those "bridges" of Madison County, Yeargan represents them with flown-in arches that look like the frames for Christo's "The Gates."
Unfortunately, …Bridges… can be dull at times but O'Hara's and Pasqualle's online chemistry and commanding voices, and Brown's lush score, raise it up to a level of art that gives the evening legitimacy and substance.