Score soars in “The Bridges of Madison County” musical (review)

By the time Jason Robert Brown’s score roars into its master-song, “One Second and a Million Miles” you have well become aware that you have been listening to the best musical theater score in years in “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York.

Kelli O’Hara is a superior Francesca and Steven Pasquale a hunk of a photographer Robert in this musical adapted from the novel (and subsequent movie) by Robert James Waller — moreso the former than the latter. (I’ll go on record here to say that I abhor the movie version of this story).

Supported by an excellent Ensemble in this tale of traveling photographer falling in love with married Italian housewife (you know how it ends, don’t you?) the real star of the show is Jason Robert Brown’s soaring score — large lyrical lines convey emotion and inner turmoil, and it is his best score for the theater ever. In fact, I think you have to go back to Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza to find a score this consistently lyrical and strong.

Kelli O’Hara conveys both vulnerability and strength in her portrayal. Steven Pasquale is the perfect blend of charisma and enigma, and you can instantly see what draws Francesca to Robert the moment she sees him. Very strong featured performances are turned in by Hunter Foster, Cass Morgan, and Michael X. Martin.

The sparse set works perfectly for this production, with wood framework representing roofs, covered bridges, and walls — in a musical about a community that looks out for each other, there are no secrets, and that symbolism is reflected beautifully by Michael Yeargan’s set design.

Jason Robert Brown also serves as the orchestrater for the music, and it is sweeping and at times completely drops out as performers sing acapella. Its a stunning effect that serves to highlight some of the work’s most important sung dialogue.

Bartlett Sher does a serviceable job with direction of the musical — at times resorting to milling-Ensemble to convey movement, passage of time, and the ever-present community of Iowa that both supports and suffocates Francesca. There’s a bit too much of that.

Overall, this is a fine evening of musical theater, and a superb evening of musical theater music — Jason Robert Brown might as well collect his Tony right now for Best Score and Best Orchestrations — nothing will touch them in years.

Highly Recommended.

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