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Verdi It Ain’t

by Ralph Hammann on August 7, 2013

The Bridges of Madison County
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, book by Marsha Norman, directed by Bartlett Sher, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Main Stage, through Aug. 18


The success of Robert James Waller’s pretentious and ripe novel with its inane prose and cliche-ridden plot was baffling. More puzzling was why a director as discriminating as Clint Eastwood would want to wallow in Waller, and make a film of what was barely passable as a Harlequin romance. But surely Eastwood shrewdly knew that an artistic failure in one medium can often be satisfyingly adapted into another. And with poetic photography replacing Waller’s pathetic descriptions, judicious pruning of the embarrassing dialogue, and actors as truthful as Eastwood and Meryl Streep, the film was able to launch itself on the obscene popularity of the novel and then transcend its source material. It’s not a great film, but it is at least a respectable story of Robert, a photographer who wanders onto the Iowan farm of Francesca, a vital Italian transplant who is languishing in a dull marriage.

Elena Shaddow in WTF's The Bridges of Madison County. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

In a program note about their Broadway-bound musical adaptation, Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman hubristically claim that their medium is superior to film for this story. Apparently, they don’t appreciate the “language” and art of photography, an ironic liability given Robert’s profession. Brown further chirps that he can, in a single musical note, provide more emotional life than can be accomplished with a poetic vocabulary. It is a naive, egotistic claim, which is held up to ridicule by Brown’s unmemorable, occasionally soporific and repetitious music, and his woefully inadequate lyrics. To be fair, he has written some pretty stuff and orchestrated it beautifully, but it would be better utilized as film underscoring.

Norman’s libretto turns the simple story of a brief, forbidden affair into something bloated and disjointed, but then, she and Brown considered this to be their La Traviata. Thus, she expands the roles of irritating minor characters and creates new characters who are intended (through contrast and comment) to develop Robert and Francesca. Instead, the clutter dilutes their impact and is necessary only for the purpose of padding out the simple tale to a three-hour (intermission included) musical that is operatic only in time. Call it La Triviata. Some of this Bridges should have been burnt.

As if directing by distraction, the worthy Bartlett Sher’s too-busy staging has characters waltzing set pieces into place and making unnecessary crosses. At first, the meticulously crafted pieces are eye-catching, but after Sher (who directed the wonderful Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific) has thrown in the kitchen sink for a second time, along with storefronts and more, a visual tedium sets in that is ameliorated only by Michael Yeargan’s excellent scenic design and Donald Holder’s magical lighting, which create more poetry and emotion than Brown’s music—except for one instance where the lights go almost as purple as Waller’s prose.

In a season of standout female performances, Elena Shaddow’s Francesca is one of the best. An exquisite and sensual beauty, Shaddow sings with a compelling clear soprano that soars above the most mundane of songs. Her remarkable, sensitive performance, at first guarded and then nakedly passionate, is the reason we go to the theater and is sufficient motivation to cross even this unstable bridge.

With his eyes too much in shadow, Steven Pasquale sings with a strong, at times touching, voice, but he is unable to imbue Robert with much life. Thus, Robert is overshadowed by Francesca, and where Shaddow transforms Brown’s and Norman’s overcooked pasta with zesty, invigorating marinara, Pasquale provides only unsalted butter on the mush.

Still, a good marinara is almost as hard to find in Berkshire County as it must be in Madison. Don’t miss Elena Shaddow.