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'The Bridges of Madison County' review: Weepy romance detours into conventional Broadway

Hunter Foster and Kelli O'Hara during a performance

Hunter Foster and Kelli O'Hara during a performance of "The Bridges of Madison County," at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in Manhattan. Credit: AP / Joan Marcus

"The Bridges of Madison County" is a ravishingly beautiful musical play based on the phenomenally popular 1992 weeper about a four-day love affair between an Iowa farm wife from Italy and a worldly photographer. In other words, this is unblushing Harlequin Romance-style material bound in top-quality leather.

So many intelligent, gifted artists are involved in this adaptation that we wish the objective were deeper than a high-toned bodice ripper with comic-relief detours into conventional Broadway. But Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale, magnificently magnetic as Francesca and Robert, make the ripping feel like real heartbreak. And director Bartlett Sher and his creative team from "South Pacific" are storytellers who understand the luscious power of simplicity. Even the bridges, the reason for the fateful encounter, are understated with planks that seem to float into place from the panoramic backdrop of Iowa sky.

Then there is the marvelous score by Jason Robert Brown, whose "Parade" won him a Tony but, to my mind, not enough love in 1999. He introduces the émigré Francesca -- O'Hara at her most emotionally and musically impeccable -- with just a cello melody, which comes back during her restless moments. As she comes to terms with her pleasant, unexciting home and family, Brown fills in the lonely cello with exceptionally sensitive orchestrations.

Robert, a National Geographic photographer, is a mysterious object of desire and suspicion to the snoopy townfolk. For him, Brown pushes the distant drifter's boundaries with full-throated love songs, mixed with bits of heartthrob crooning and an emotional revelation in exquisite a cappella. The sound is dark and twangy, but likable, for Hunter Foster, Francesca's tender but dull husband.

Fans of the novel and/or the 1995 movie may come to blows over questions of literary fidelity in Marsha Norman's smartly written but overpopulated book. Instead of keeping the lens tight on the closed world of the passionate lovers and their hot (but modestly dressed) sex scenes, the show opens into back stories and folksy numbers for too many extraneous characters. Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin are lovely as the nosy neighbors, but does each one deserve an amusing song?

We understand that Francesca's children (Caitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena) are at those awkward teen years, but do we need to know that much about the daughter's prize steer or the son's wild buddy? This context does raise the stakes when Francesca has to choose between their happiness and her own. With so much padding in the second act, however, we have too much time to realize how shamelessly we're being manipulated.

WHAT "The Bridges of Madison County"

WHERE Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St.

INFO $59-$141; 212-239-6200;

BOTTOM LINE Weepy romance novel bound in top-quality leather.


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