Sunday, February 23, 2014

Review: Has 'Bridge' Gone A Bridge Too Far?

No, this post is not about Bridgegate.
Nor is it about Governor Christie or New Jersey.
This is actually about Iowa - bridges in Iowa.
A lonely Italian woman (a World War II war bride) is living on a farm in Madison County Iowa in the 1960s with her husband and two children. The husband and children take a weekend trip to the 4-H Fair where they've entered a livestock competition.
Along comes a stranger - a ruggedly handsome photographer for National Georgraphic on assignment to photograph the county's picturesque covered bridges. He's an inventive photographer, a sensitive man.
By now you must know that we're talking about The Bridges of Madison County. 
Published as a novel in 1992 it went on to become one of the best-selling books of the 20th century. This hauntingly romantic tale was then turned into a Hollywood star vehicle with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. Again, it was a big success.
Now, it's come to Broadway as a musical starring the hugely talented Kelli O'Hara and newcomer Steven Pasquale. They're both fine actors. O'Hara should have won a Tony by now. And Salvatore seems destined to be a leading man and certified hearthrob.
The team behind Bridges includes many of the same talents that worked their magic on another adaptation of a movie into a musical, The Light in the Piazza. And like Piazza, Bridges is a poignant romance - a bittersweet romance of fate tinged with sadness. Such a cross-cultural romance works in something like The King And I which is rich and lavish. And it worked in one of O'Hara's best outings, the recently-revived South Pacific which conveys a powerful message to amidst real-life historical events. Plus, both those productions benefitted from Rodgers and Hammerstein's unforgettable scores. That's why they're still around and still drawing crowds.
Usually, when a stage play or musical becomes a movie, the director opens up the story by adding new settings and even new characters. But here, we have what was largely a two-character movie now opened up to include a larger role for the husband and additional roles for friends and neighbors. The friends and neighbors work as a sort of Greek chorus. Sometimes they're actually part of the action and the story and sometimes they're sitting along the sides of the stage. But they almost always seem to be there, watching and (as in the case of ordinary people in a small town) gossiping and passing their own judgement on all that's going on around them.
But, here's the thing: Not much is really going on.
Oh, sure -- an 1950's Iowa housewife at home alone let's a complete stanger into her house, into her life and into her heart. And the stranger finds his soulmate. And they do what people do when that happens. And it happens in the same bed that the housewife shares with her husband and even while her husband is calling back home. Powerful stuff, right? Well, yes. And it comes with a sense of heightened anticipatrion that is supposed to render sensual and meaningful.
But there's precious little passion in this show.
Remember, O'Hara's character is from southern Italy. And she's stuck in the middle of Iowa on a farm. After the somewhat tedious buildup one would expect a sort of reckless abandon when she finally reaches the state of total release. But it doesn't really happen. Maybe it's because O'Hara's accent doesn't seem quite right. Maybe it's because her character appears to be so pensive, so hard on herself. Maybe it's because the chemistry between O'Hara and Pasquale doesn't seem to be fully realized. Maybe it's because at it's core the show's music and staging renders it joyless, with spare sets musical monologues. The score soars briefly but not enough to makes our hearts take flight. Maybe it's the townfolk on stage or maybe it's just that our views on "love" with the proper stranger have changed so much not just since the 1960s but more recently since the book and the movie. For whatever reason, it doesn't seem to work.
Now, bear in mind that we saw a relatively early preview of the show and significant changes may have been made since that time.
But Pasquale has come to photograph bridges -- covered bridges that you have to imagine since there are no actual bridges on the stage, only an outline of one. And O'Hara is from wartime Italy, an Italy that is somewhat played out in brief flashbacks but still a time and a place that you have to imagine. And this rural housewife did manage to have two children with her earnest and hard-working American veteran husband  and there does seem to be some love between the two of them but again, it pretty much has to be imagined. 
To be sure, in this production, we're rooting for the housewife and the stranger to get together even against our better judgement. And that says something about all the effort that has been put into the show and the hard-work and talent of everyone involved. But it just doesn't seem to be enough.
Understand, we're not judging this musical adaption against the book or the movie. We didn't read the book or see the movie and we knew nothing about the story until we saw the show.
It's just that in the end, given all the elements as they're presented here the journey that we're acked to take in The Bridges of Madison County is simply a bridge too far.

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