Home Theater Broadway: Kelli O’Hara Successfully Crosses “Bridge” to Nowhere

You could listen to Kelli O’Hara sing the phone book. And that would be preferable to hearing her navigate the turgid tones provided by Jason Robert Brown in the Broadway musical version of “The Bridges of Madison County.” Maybe I’m spoiled, I did just see “Pippin” last week. That show has songs you’re still humming days after the curtain drops. The songs in “Bridges” go nowhere, and most of them sound the same. The show is not a toe tapper.

Of course, the book this was based on is romantic fantasy stuff for housewives– “Fifty Shades of Grey” without the handcuffs. The movie that followed was no Oscar winner, although Meryl Streep did her usual good job portraying Italian war bride Francesca. Franny marries an American soldier and leaves Naples for the flat lands of Iowa. She raises two kids, never leaves, and is bored out of her mind.

Then Robert the photographer comes into her life. He’s in Madison County to photograph the famous covered bridges for National Geographic. While hubby and kids go to a State Fair, Francesca spends a weekend sleeping with Robert. The annoying family returns, the lovers go their separate ways. They never forget each other.

Problem 2, after songs that sound the same: no covered bridges. Not even a drawing of one. The sets look like they cost five cents. The “bridge” is suggested by wooden goal posts. The backdrop painting doesn’t even have a covered bridge. This would be like the chandelier in “Phantom” represented by a florescent lightbulb.

Problem 3: director Bartlett Sher has a lot of people on stage at the most inappropriate times. Another reviewer today called them Zombies. I agree. They sit and watch the action including when Francesca and Robert are in bed. It’s completely weird. It was bad enough that a woman two seats away from me insisted on texting all through the first act. Maybe she was sending notes to Sher. Nothing could shame her into shutting the bright light from her phone.

What works: You could just listen to Kelli O’Hara sing sing sing. It’s remarkable that she saves the show and keeps you from leaving during the intermission. Stephen Pasquale is also a dynamic singer although is character is such a white wine spritzer-suede show kind of knee jerk phony, you want to hit him. It’s 1965 in the play, but you know he’ll be a big Dan Fogelberg fan in 10 years.

Usually I would tell you there were celebrities in the audience; that would mitigate a soggy show. But the producers held a stealth premiere on Wednesday night and kept the press for Thursday. Maybe they didn’t want the two sides mixing. I did see fine artist Eric Fischl and his wife, poet April Gornik. That’s something. I was told the reason for the two opening nights was because the book’s author Robert Waller couldn’t attend both showings. But he was right there on the aisle.

The main draw is Kelli O’Hara. She’s worth the whole thing.

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