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Tension and Violins Adorn The Bridges of Madison County

Tension and Violins Adorn The Bridges of Madison County
Joan Marcus

A smoldering drifter darkens the door of a 1960s Iowa housewife. Passions ignite. Francesca, an Italian immigrant who pines for her native Mediterranean home, must make her choice: run with the love of her life, or stay and honor another kind of love — for her family.

The Bridges of Madison County, a new musical based on the bestselling novel by Robert James Waller, hinges on this dilemma, but a constant ambiguity dogs the production: Is this the stuff of Harlequin novels, with churning carry-me-away ballads? Or is this a nobler tale of existential loss, perhaps an echo of Chekhov's Three Sisters, where missed connections mean rural lives lost to fate and time?

That aesthetic tension never fully resolves. The slicker parts of Bartlett Sher's staging successfully stretch the suspense over Francesca's choice, making us aware of disappearing days, hours, and minutes. On the other hand, Marsha Norman's book and Jason Robert Brown's music and lyrics are bland and repetitive, and the ensemble is awkwardly integrated, especially when they wander through Francesca's memories and thoughts. Kelli O'Hara's frequently stirring performance as Francesca goes a long way toward elevating essentially banal material, but it's hard to understand what she sees in Robert (Steven Pasquale), an underdeveloped character. Should she stay or should she go? Your answer may depend on whether you, too, yearn to surrender to swelling violins.

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