The new Jason Robert Brown-Marsha Norman Broadway musical is based on the popular, but critically maligned Robert James Waller romance novel about a Italian-American housewife in 1960s Iowa who finds new love and life when a rugged photographer pulls into town to take photos of those charming structures alluded to in the title. Bartlett Sher, who has piloted O'Hara to acclaimed performances in The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific, directs.
Critics haven't always been kind to Brown since he emerged as the wunderkind composer of Parade 16 years ago, but they generally loved the musical's lush score. What they loved even more was the acting and singing of O'Hara, who with this show only burnished her reputation as the theatre's leading musical theatre actress. With most reviews, however, the praise ended there.
Ben Brantley of the New York Times basically devoted his entire review to praising O'Hara (while being a bit skimpy in his approval of anything else), writing, "I am happy to say that Ms. O'Hara more than keeps the promises made by her interpretation of that first song, one of many sumptuous pieces that feel as if they had been written specifically for her by the show's composer, Jason Robert Brown. She also confirms her position as one of the most exquisitely expressive stars in musical theater."
The AP spread the praise out a bit more evenly, saying, "Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale come just short of blowing the roof off the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in this touching doomed romance that features a superb, thrilling score by Jason Robert Brown." Variety, too, focused on the attractions at center stage: "Fussy direction and design choices and cumbersome book scenes crowd the central couple, but the gorgeous voices and thoughtful characterizations of Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale in those roles help counter the weaknesses of this problematic romantic musical."
The Wall Street Journal said of Brown's score, "Parts of it are as musically exciting as anything heard on Broadway since Stephen Sondheim's glory days" (which must have pleased an ardent Sondheim disciple like Brown), while New York Magazine went so far as to compare Brown's work to the even earlier greats, saying, "The Bridges of Madison County, though based on an insipid novel, is a very serious musical indeed, both rapturous and moral, with a gorgeous score by Jason Robert Brown. It is also one of the few recent Broadway shows to take up the challenge laid down by the great midcentury works of R&H and their cohort: to tell stories that weld important sociological upheavals to personal conflicts and somehow make them sing...the leading performances, shaped by Sher to preserve a sense of character modesty within the vocal extravagance, are exemplary."
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