This show's titular covered bridges are the gentlest possible kind of tourist attraction – charming, dour 19th century wooden structures. And this new musical is similarly unassuming in scope, dealing with a small, fleeting, suburban affair based on Robert James Waller’s bestselling 1992 novel of the same name – an intimate, tear-jerking memoir for the eyes of 50 million sobbing readers only.
Marsha Norman, who wrote the book, is a Tony-award winning veteran of adapting books for the stage, including The Secret Garden (1991) and the grittier, Oprah-backed musical of The Color Purple (2005), while composer Jason Robert Brown won a Tony for his score for Parade (1998) – this pair are habituees hardened by decades of writing for Broadway, tackling a not-quite vintage, but not-quite forgotten blockbuster romance. Itemised by constituent parts, this musical seems like a sure-fire, splash-quoted hit, and indeed it's picked up four Tony nominations. But the reality isn’t quite as bold and brash as you might expect. This timid musical is almost embarrassed by its own romanticism; a housewife hiding a slushy novel under a recipe book on the nightstand.
The star of this novel (actual and metaphorical) is the be-aproned Francesca, who’s an Italian migrant trapped in 1960s Iowa. She’s a good rural wife, growing kale on a vegetable patch outside, cooking for her husband and two teenage children, and moderating their squabbles. But Kelli O’Hara’s stellar performance is undershot with just enough edge and subtle glamour to make it clear that Francesca’s dreams float above such mundane concerns. Drifting, handsome Robert, sent by National Geographic to photograph Madison County’s covered bridges, spots this too, as she gently romances him with stories of home and Italian stews. Steven Pasquale’s faint reciprocation is easily outshone by O’Hara’s colour and brightness, but rightly so – this play is her technicolor fantasy, the focus pulled tightly on her animated, ecstatic features.
Around her, the field is blurred and the atmosphere is hazy, the whole play a single summer's fever-dream. And it's a particularly American kind of dream, too – one in almost-uncritical love with small-town life and immigrant tales and resilient, unfancy Midwestern values.
Still, the play is shot through with subtle satire on rural Iowa life. Francesca's children and husband are away at a steer competition that’s handled with a loving half-seriousness, which still finds the grossness of carting shampooed cattle to a state fair beauty parade. Even more sharply, it emphasises the small-town torture of perpetually being watched. Bartlett Sher's direction effectively shadows Francesca and Robert's romance with the presence of their neighbours on stage as mute, stolid adjuncts to the story, pulling out binoculars or noting number plates. And Francesca's family might be miles away, but they still tug at her by standing as observing spectres as her affair unfolds.
Behind the characters, Michael Yeargan's stunning, straightforward design is a cornfield that glows and swells from green to full gold ripeness. And the covered bridge is a set of weathered timbers that fly in, dreamily, in an abstract evocation of the title's landmark. This beauty is in keeping with Jason Robert Brown’s scores unapologetically, swooning romantic approach – unvaried, perhaps, but still unvarying lovely. This is a gentle 1960s that's not over the 1940s yet, let alone the 1950s. Only Robert’s ex-wife Marian (a gorgeously-voiced Whitney Bashor) injects a contemporary feel, with her short dresses and free-spirited, proto-Joni Mitchell songs.
Brief flirtations with seductive hippydom aside, this musical is nonetheless a reaffirmation of a deeply nostalgic value set. Francesca must hold her family together to ensure that her son becomes a doctor, not a counterculture drop out, and to soothe her daughter’s anxieties so she can go and marry and mother in turn. The show that revolves dreamily around Francesca follows a similarly predictable trajectory, through old-fashioned values and weak romantic fantasies, which still manage to weave a hazy summer’s day seduction.