It’s one of the simplest sets on New York City's glitzy Broadway: a few high-backed wooden chairs neatly arranged around the stage’s perimeter, a light pole holding an old-fashioned telephone and a small tree pressed against a dark backdrop. Then the house lights dim, the orchestra swells and the blank canvas slowly comes to life. Glowing oranges and reds shed light on a vast swath of farmland. A couple of silos and a barn appear in the distance. This is Iowa, home to the novel-turned-movie-turned-musical The Bridges of Madison County.
The new show, starring four-time Tony nominee Kelli O’Hara and Broadway breakout Steven Pasquale, opened at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre on February 20 to largely favorable reviews. I saw the show a week after opening night and—Midwest bias aside—it's the best show I've seen in awhile, thanks to incredible chemistry between the leads, a moving score by Jason Robert Brown and the wonderfully simple set design.
Some may consider the show's plot too schmaltzy or uneventful for their taste. The musical follows the structure of Robert James Waller's 1992 novel about Francesca, an Italian immigrant who, after years of living with a dull husband in rural Winterset, Iowa, seeks a little color in her life. Enter Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer who swings through Madison County to photograph the famous covered bridges. A chance encounter between the two main characters leads to an emotionally complex affair while Francesca's husband and two kids are showing their prized cow at the Indiana State Fair. Sure, the plot's not for everyone, but where this version thrives is in its variety of musical styles, from folk to blues to even a touch of opera, allowing O’Hara’s silky smooth voice to soar across the fields.
Being a lifelong Midwesterner, the best part of the show for me was that it felt like home. After a long day of battling crowds and experiencing sensory overload in the urban jungle of Manhattan, getting a couple hours at the end of the day to escape to the quiet countryside was as refreshing as a glass of fresh lemonade. Not to mention, the references to corn dogs, state fairs and Des Moines triggered sweet memories that few audience members could have. If the show tours, it will likely launch in Des Moines (thanks to strategic investment in the show by Des Moines Performing Arts) and play in major cities throughout the Midwest.
After the book was published and the 1995 film (starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood) was released, the real Madison County and the town of Winterset received a sizeable tourism boost from avid fans who wanted to visit the county's six covered bridges, including the iconic Roseman Bridge featured in the story. I imagine a few avid Broadway fans will swing through the region, too, and I hope they’re pleasantly surprised by the peace and serenity of the Hawkeye State.
I, for one, am grateful to live where sunrises aren’t an illusion crafted by stage lights.
PR photos by Joan Marcus / Courtesy of The Bridges of Madison County.
Theater exterior photos by Jess Hoffert.