Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York City
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The very title of this musical “may well give you the willies,” said Ben Brantley inThe New York Times. The 1992 novel it invokes was a huge best-seller in its day, but it was “sort of the Fifty Shades of Grey of two decades ago”—except that the lack of explicit sex scenes made Robert James Waller’s tale of a woman liberated by a stranger’s touch more “Fifty Shades of Vanilla.” But from the moment that star Kelli O’Hara launches into the show’s first ballad, the story’s rural Iowa setting suddenly feels “like a far more exciting place to visit than you might have imagined.” O’Hara is “one of the most exquisitely expressive stars in musical theater,” and she’s been given songs here that inspire us to care deeply about the character’s finding fulfillment.
O’Hara’s relative youth hurts the drama a bit, said Marilyn Stasio in Variety. In the 1995 film adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, the story’s protagonist was an Italian-born mother of two teenagers, and there was a “powerful emotional tug” in “watching two middle-aged people work up the courage to make one last grasp at happiness.” Here, we can’t blame O’Hara’s lonesome farmwife from falling into a four-day affair with Steven Pasquale’s “dreamy” magazine photographer, but the scenario feels unreal. “Outside the sanctuary of the love affair, it’s one big wasteland out there” in 1960s Iowa: Director Bartlett Sher has surrounded the stars with a mute army of neighbors dressed in drab work clothes. Their scowling disapproval of the affair suggests that no heartlander besides O’Hara’s passionate Francesca “ever gets up to any hanky-panky.”
Still, “the beating heart of the show” is Jason Robert Brown’s “richly melodic” score, said Joe Dziemianowicz in the New York Daily News. It’s “one of Broadway’s best in the last decade,” and “stirring orchestrations” amplify its emotional power. Without the music and O’Hara’s performance, this Bridges of Madison County “might feel like a very small show,” said Peter Marks in The Washington Post. Instead, it “leaves you with the feeling that you have something valuable to contemplate.” O’Hara and Brown make the quiet suffering of one woman “fully worthy of our compassion.”
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