Thursday, March 20, 2014

Theater Reviews: "The Bridges of Madison County" On Broadway; "Stage Kiss" Off-Broadway

The Bridges of Madison County
Book by Marsha Norman; music & lyrics by Jason Robert Brown; directed by Bartlett Sher
Previews began January 17, 2014; opened March 20
Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Stage Kiss
Written by Sarah Ruhl; directed by Rebecca Taichman
Performances through April 6, 2014
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

Pasquale and O'Hara in The Bridges of Madison County (photo: Joan Marcus)
The Bridges of Madison County has the most thrilling musical curtain raiser in recent memory, for one reason: Kelli O’Hara, who has already cemented her position onstage among a crowded current field of talented singing actresses. Indeed, with such magical voices and personalities as Sutton Foster, Audra McDonald, Sierra Boggess and the two Lauras, Benanti and Osnes, alongside O’Hara, this is truly a new golden age on and off Broadway.

When she walks onstage for the first of composer Jason Robert Brown’s wannabe operatic songs, O’Hara brings a joyful sense of real drama to this melodically and lyrically clich├ęd introduction to Bridges’ world of the flatlands of Iowa’s farms, where Francesca—Italian-born wife and mother who has spent the last two decades dutifully raising her family far away from Naples, where she met her GI husband Bud during World War II—spills her soul.

Little else in this show about the brief but torrid affair between Francesca and Robert, a National Geographic photographer who happens by after her husband and two teenage children leave for the Indiana State Fair with their prize steer in tow, rises to that level of passion. It’s primarily due to Robert James Waller’s trashy source novel—Clint Eastwood’s 1995 film, starring Eastwood and Meryl Streep, made its protagonists older, providing a melancholic sense of a missed chance at last love—which Marsha Norman’s book cannot overcome.

Instead, Norman’s book wallows in a cutesy middle America, saddling Francesca—and us—with a busybody neighbor and her husband, about whom far too much is made as the affair runs its course. Then there are Brown’s routine lyrics and derivative music: the latter has pretentions to deeper emotions in romantic arias and duets for the adulterous lovers, but they only reach our hearts due to O’Hara and an equally superb Steven Pasquale.

O’Hara, a meltingly lovely actress who makes us fall deeply for this woman yanked from her world to begin a new life only to find an unlikely escape, and Pasquale, an intelligent actor whose powerhouse singing voice hasn’t been heard on Broadway until now, make a winning couple. Although it’s strange that O’Hara decided to sing with her accent (while speaking, she sounds at times like Arianna Huffington, whose Greek homeland is hundreds of miles from Naples), the pair’s passionate duets make Brown’s songs sound more tuneful than they really are.

Hunter Foster—Sutton’s brother—invests the stock character of Francesca’s husband Bud with a pathos unearned on the page, while Cass Morgan and Michael X. Martin are less irritating than they could have been as neighbors with too much stage time. Michel Yeargan’s set, comprising bits and pieces of kitchen furnishings and one of the fabled covered bridges of the title, is cleverly utilized by director Bartlett Sher, as the supporting cast brings the pieces on and off stage. That they sit at either side when not in on the action is a less felicitous directorial decision.

Despite many drawbacks, O’Hara and Pasquale make this lukewarm musical a white-hot, irresistible romance.

Fumusa and Hecht in Stage Kiss (photo: Joan Marcus)
Sarah Ruhl returns with another heavy-handed, shaky mix of comedy, parody, sentimentality and absurdism: Stage Kiss is a wooden and, finally, quite pointless bit of affected whimsy in which two performers, decades after an affair in their younger days, reunite for the revival of a bad play and discover that the sparks they try to produce onstage are being reproduced backstage and fall for each other again.

Though unoriginal, this isn’t bad material from which to extract a funny, even relevant comedy: real life vs. show biz might be an old-hat concept, but one might find small nuggets of truth and hilarity in the interactions of self-absorbed actors, playwrights and directors. Too bad Ruhl finds few of those nuggets in the story of He and She, who re-meet cutely at the first reading of an awful play that’s been unearthed after years of neglect.

We get far more scenes from this play, with intentional howlers in the dialogue and characters, than we should: maybe Ruhl wants her own play to look better by comparison. The trouble is, Stage Kiss isn’t much better than the two fictional plays it lampoons (yes, there’s another in the second act).

After an overlong first act with endless scenes of readings and rehearsals from the fictional play, the second act shows Ruhl briefly finding her footing, with amusingly lively banter among the characters crowded into He’s apartment: namely He’s girlfriend and She’s husband and daughter. However, after silly talk about souls breaks the brief spell, another lousy play that He and She decide to take on becomes the semi-focus of Ruhl’s unfocused play. Groaningly obvious jokes and one-liners abound, and when the play turns serious at the end, it’s a desperate move to find Meaning in what could have made a decent skit with a few chuckles.

Jessica Hecht gives a bizarre performance, with off-kilter line readings that better fit the characters in the plays-within-the-play than they do She, while Dominic Fumusa is a charismatic, winning He, who’s an actor that’s humorously bad at accents. A few seasons back, Ruhl’s Broadway play In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play was a wonderful surprise: after her increasingly less felicitous The Clean House, Eurydice, Dead Man’s Cell Phone and now Stage Kiss, it’s obvious that The Vibrator Play was the exception that proves the Ruhl.

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