Sunday, April 13, 2014


It’s here, ladies and gentleman: Jason Robert Brown’s return to Broadway. And it just so happens that he’s provided us with the most intensely romantic score since Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza.

There’s a difference here, though. While Piazza gently floated on the wind with a classical sensibility infused with piano, strings, and harp that touched us in the heart, The Bridges of Madison County has a musical approach that’s more muscular… it virtually punches us in the gut. It reflects a type of love unlike the innocence of Fabrizio and Clara, two naïve young people from two different worlds. The romance between Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid is one of forbidden love, a deep and complex affair that oozes with palpable danger and sexuality. And Jason Robert Brown’s work reflects that in a way that few other composers today could achieve. If Brown hadn’t written the brilliant score for Parade, I’d say Bridges is his most significant contribution to musical theatre to date.

 Interestingly, some of Bridges is quite reminiscent of Parade (One song, in fact, opens with a string arrangement that reminded me instantly of ‘People of Atlanta’). The bulk of Brown’s score is rooted in the story’s setting of Madison County, Iowa, giving it a country flavour while other complementary songs are written in styles such as classical, blues, and folk. There are soaring ballads, powerful anthems, and contemplative soliloquies that are compelling and affecting. The score isn’t afraid to defy all typical convention as well… rather than aggressively pulling us in with a pounding, flashy opening number, Brown opted to start the show with 'To Build a Home', a gentle aria sung by the remarkable Kelli O’Hara as Francesca. It quietly invites and draws us in rather than beating our heads into attention. Similarly, the musical doesn’t end with fanfare and a showstopper… it concludes on quite a poignant note that is just as memorable as a big crowd pleaser would have been.

The accomplishment of the show’s talent-packed cast is as excellent as the score itself. Kelli O’Hara proves she can do no wrong in another stunning vocal performance as Francesca, her bright soprano’s quality unaffected by a quite perfect Italian accent. Little needs to be said of Ms. O’Hara, who turns in consistently excellent work. All we can hope is that this role earns her the Tony win she more than deserves. Steven Pasquale as Robert is a revelation, a hidden gem of a singer who is finally given the job he deserves, gifted with songs that push his range vocally and emotionally. Pasquale achieves both with skill and aplomb. For an untrained vocalist, Pasquale’s robust, dramatic, legit tenor is remarkable, even chill-inducing. A highlight of the score is when O’Hara and Pasquale duet in the intense 'One Second and A Million Miles', with a pounding underscoring that is urgent and sensual. Both performers make this piece endlessly riveting, and you just might get goosebumps when Pasquale gets a moment of a capella singing that propels him into a deeply felt ballad of passionate yearning.

The supporting talent is just as terrific. Hunter Foster turns in a layered and well-sung performance as Francesca’s American husband Bud, shining the most in the theatrical country tune 'Home Before You Know It'. As Robert’s wife Marian, Broadway newcomer Whitney Bashor has a gorgeous voice that adeptly carries the Joni Mitchell-esque folk song 'Another Life', making it one of the score’s undeniable highlights. The other supporting roles of the cast, including Derek Klena, Caitlin Kinnunen, Cass Morgan, and Michael X. Martin do beautiful and memorable work in smaller moments. It’s a uniformly strong cast.

Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight Records have done their usual outstanding job immortalizing the score for The Bridges of Madison County, and we have Brown to thank for being one of the few remaining composers who doesn’t simply write a score for commercial value. He proves there’s still room on Broadway for substance over style. And the results are inarguably timeless.

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