“The ache and the buzz for the girl that I was,” sings the heroine of the musical version of Bridges of Madison County now playing on Broadway, prompting a delicious wave of nostalgia among the audience for the five-handkerchief novel which sold 50 million copies in the early 90s. As one stirring song follows another in this mesmerizingly romantic new musical, one can’t help but feel amazed that no one set this love story to music before. But Jason Robert Brown, who wrote the music and lyrics, strikes just the right notes here in depicting his protagonists’ powerful chemistry.
Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale are perfectly cast as Francesca, an Italian transplant to a farm in the middle of Iowa, and the chiseled Robert, a glamorous National Geographic photographer. This first-rate duo both bring a palpable yearning to their performances as their characters fall in love over four hot summer days in 1965. The incredible warmth that Kelli O’Hara infuses into her portrayal wafts over the entire auditorium as her voice soars through hummable song after hummable song. It’s hard to take your eyes off her long enough to feast them on the equally powerful Pasquale.
Francesca’s kindly husband (Hunter Foster) and truculent teenage children (Caitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena) are away showing their prize steer at a state fair when Robert stops at the farm to ask directions to the eponymous bridges. Sparks immediately fly and eventually, against their better judgment, the pair cannot resist the magnetic attraction they feel.
This dazzling performance takes place against a beautiful rural backdrop suffused with ruby sunsets and twinkling stars. The bridge – a theatrical challenge to put on stage — is suggested by a series of frames and fences that fly in. A simple but effective collection of mobile units is wheeled on and off to create the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom of the farmhouse, a dusty main street, and a rodeo. The atmosphere of a country on the brink of change is evocatively rendered with winged glasses, beehive hairdos, and metal thermoses among other gorgeous period details.
As the action unfolds, the ensemble is constantly watching from the edges in a brooding, slightly sinister way. Their presence takes on more significance during the number “You’re Never Alone,” about the perks and drawbacks of small town life. Cass Morgan adds a hilarious note as the curtain-twitching nosy neighbor Madge. She pulls out the binoculars to get a better view of Francesca’s mysterious visitor but exhibits the restraint of a real friend when she later witnesses her neighbor’s heartbreak.
The show cleverly interweaves both the absent family members’ time at the state fair and reminiscences about the lovers’ pasts with the present love story. At one point, Robert’s ex-wife (Whitney Bashor) sings a folksy solo “Another Life” while he and Francesca are seen flirting over the dinner table in the farmhouse.
Ultimately, The Bridges of Madison County taps into to the universal urge to imagine what might have been. In what promises to be the hit of the show, “One Second and A Million Miles,” the lovers sing, “We are tied, we are locked, we are bound, this will not be reversed or unwound.” Whatever fate they choose, the song suggests, they will always have those four summer days. For anyone who has loved and lost, it’s a stirring anthem. The pinging of departing audiences’ heartstrings can be heard all along Broadway long after the curtain goes down.