Monday, August 19, 2013

The Bridges of Madison County: Indistinct

Elena Shaddow and Steven Pasquale in The Bridges of Madison County

Last year the Williamstown Theatre Festival premiered a new musical based on Todd Haynes’s movie Far from Heaven – a perplexing choice, since the material (whatever one thinks of it) is so rarefied and dependent on cinematic reference points that transposing it could only alter the meaning, or at least reduce it to a series of social-problem-melodrama clichés. This year WTF mounted another new musical, based on Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County, and that’s puzzling too, though for a different reason. Waller’s novel about a short-lived affair between a married Iowa farm woman who’s an Italian émigré and an itinerant photographer is basically a Harlequin romance for the women’s-book-club set, with sufficiently self-conscious style to make readers believe that it should be taken seriously. It’s a suffocatingly bland volume, with characters who are barely more than ciphers, and the only thing that makes the 1995 movie version more distinctive is the miscasting of Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood in the two principal roles. (Eastwood directed the picture.) So why bother turn this story into a musical?

You won’t find the answer in the musical itself, set in 1965, which contains the bare bones of a book by Marsha Norman and twenty-two uninteresting songs by Jason Robert Brown. Young musical-theatre actors are drawn to Brown’s output, probably because it’s pumped up with phony theatrics, but I’ve never thought he had much talent, and his songs are too insubstantial to serve performers well. Here they’re in a musical-theatre version of country-western mode, which means that you can’t imagine a single country-western singer you like covering any of them. And there are so goddamn many of them that almost all Norman can do as a playwright is string spare lines of dialogue between them, mostly to cover a few plot points. There isn’t much plot anyway. Francesca (Elena Shaddow) has a comfortable but low-passion marriage to Bud (Daniel Jenkins), whom she met when he was a soldier stationed in Italy. They have a pair of ordinary teenagers, a boy (Nick Bailey) who’s interested in sex and weed, and a girl (Caitlin Kinnuven) who’s raised a steer. Francesca meets Robert (Steven Pasquale) when her family is away at a state fair and he stops by her house asking for directions to a covered bridge he needs to photograph for a magazine assignment. (Pasquale starred opposite Kelli O’Hara in Far from Heaven; O’Hara will take over the role of Francesca when the musical moves to New York in the spring.) Shut in, still lonely for home, feeling she’s long since given up any chances at adventure, Francesca finds herself instantly simpatico with Robert; they sleep together, he asks her to run off with him, but when her family returns she finds she can’t. But she remembers him all her life, though they have no further contact until, some time after Bud’s death, a lawyer brings her news that Robert, too, has died and left her his camera. End of musical.

The production has an attractive scenic design by Michael Yeargan and is warmly lit by Donald Holder; they’re more successful at getting the wide, flat feel of the Iowa prairie than the designers of last year’s Giant were at conveying the overwhelming hugeness of Texas. The director, Bartlett Sher, opens the show well, using the ensemble to paint in a sense of the community and to give the first number, “To Build a Home,” a kinetic dimension. The musical is directed with some finesse, the actors and set pieces continually reshifting the look of the stage picture, but the material doesn’t appear to offer Sher (who’s a great director) many ideas. And though – except for Bailey, who play-acts the role of the restless adolescent son – the actors all give perfectly competent performances, no one in the cast is memorable. The one brief exception is Whitney Bashor, who lends an unexpected edge – sadness bordering on bitterness – to Robert’s ex-wife Marian’s song, “Another Life,” in which she accompanies herself on guitar so that it feels like a bar number. Shaddow and Pasquale are fine singers but they don’t have strong enough personalities to compensate for the underwriting of the roles. I’m not a fan of Marsha Norman’s plays, but she can’t be blamed for this problem, since (a) Waller gives her so little to work with and (b) the songs keep crowding out any contribution she might have made to the project. This is the musical-theatre era of the disappearing book writer; songwriters feel they have to write one and a half times as many tunes as earlier generations of songwriters did, and it strikes me that the imbalance benefits no one. As it happens, “Another Life” is the only song I cared for in the score of The Bridges of Madison County, but surely Harold Arlen or Cole Porter would have been hard pressed to come up with nearly two dozen decent songs for a single show. (My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof each have fifteen.) Someone has to rethink the modern musical.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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