If you know me, you know I’ve got a crush on Kelli O’Hara. She’s charmed me in Light in the Piazza, South Pacific, and Nice Work If You Can Get It, and she does it again in The Bridges of Madison County, which just opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
While she played a young American in Italy in Light in the Piazza, this time she’s an Italian war bride displaced to Iowa in the U.S. of A. You probably know the story from the Robert James Waller book or the movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. It’s something of a soap opera, but thankfully it comes across as sweet and not just saccharine.
That’s due in part to Kelli’s performance, which showcases her beautiful voice and open-hearted quality, even with a slight Italian accent and auburn hair instead of her usual blonde. It’s also due to Jason Robert Browne’s score, which draws on folk, country, and gospel music, along with some Sondheim-ish melodies. The arrangements are spare, using acoustic guitar and cello and a small string section. There are only a couple of big Broadway numbers near the end of Act 2. Thanks to that – and not so much to Marsha Norman’s serviceable book and Bartlett Sher’s so-so direction – it’s not a show that needs to hit us over the head.
Stephen Pasquale, who starred opposite Kelli in the Off Broadway production of Far from Heaven, plays Robert, the photographer who ignites feelings of passion and possibilities in Kellli’s character, Francesca. He has sex appeal, a strong voice, and a good chemistry with Kelli. The supporting cast is fine, especially Hunter Foster as her husband and Cass Whitman as her nosy, but caring neighbor.
There’s not a lot of depth to the story, but you do understand how Francesca can feel conflicted about leaving the boring life on the farm for adventures on the road with a sensitive and sexy soul mate. She won’t trade her dreams for those of her children, and ultimately they achieve what they want. It’s that sacrifice that moves the audience – and the old “it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” sentiment, which Kelli expresses in the bittersweet closing song, “Love Is Always Better.” This one could’ve been better, but with Kelli onstage it’s good enough.