Having been on the periphery of the musical theater community for many years, there is a sense of purpose and love that fills the air with each new production and the various players involved.  I want every one to succeed and I want every one to be Tony Award worthy- and if it is not Tony Award worthy (some of the best shows never won a Tony), I want it to have a successful run.  Despite my love of everything Meryl Streep does, and the fact that I used to run an Academy Awards pool every year, I never saw the movie.  I vaguely knew the story, never having read Robert James Waller’s book either. So – I went into The Bridges of Madison County with no preconceived notions or expectations.

I was, however, actually afraid – afraid that this creative piece of musical theater would be scuttled away as quickly as some others this season (Big Fish, First Date). I was afraid I would walk out thinking that this was an enjoyable show but nothing more.  I wanted very much to like this.  I wanted very much to love this.  I LOVED THIS SHOW!!  I saw it in previews, so I am sure that there are some changes, although I cannot imagine what.

For those of you who know the story, allow me a minute to indulge. Francesca, an Italian native (played by Kelli O’Hara) who met her American husband (Hunter Foster) about eighteen years earlier at the end of World War II,  now lives with him and their two children on an Iowa farm.  When the family leaves the home to compete at a county fair for four days, Francesca remains behind.  At the same time, a photo journalist, Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale) ends up lost on Francesca’s land.  Instead of giving him directions to his destination, Francesca, sensing an instant attraction,  actually wants to show him exactly where the last “bridge” of Madison County he needs to photograph is located.  This begins a four day affair where two incomplete people find their inner souls as they give themselves completely to each other.

The idea of an affair, or a cheating spouse is a delicate one – and one that does not really resonate with the general public.  After all, adultery goes against every moral rule and regulation that society is built upon.  However, this story is different.  From the first time they meet, they awake inner passions in each other that Francesca thought long dead, and Robert thought unattainable.  The affair – the romance – is treated with such dignity and class that you cannot help but root for both of them to find a way to make this work.  That is the cleverness and wisdom of Marsha Norman’s book.  Complimenting the book is the brilliancy of Jason Robert Brown, whose music and lyrics are haunting and romantic, subtle and meaningful, capturing the honest essence of the characters.  Each song continues to advance this forbidden love story.

O’Hara plays Francesca with such depth, understanding that her family is her whole life, but for a brief moment, entering into a world of “what if’s.” The conflicts and the passions of Francesca come easily for her and she moves through them flawlessly.  Her singing, as usual, is just beautiful. Steven Pasquale’s Robert is strong but fragile, performed with intelligence and trepidation that you cannot help but want him to be happy, again, if only for a brief moment.  Hunter Foster, Carolyn Kinnunen and Derek Klena are wonderful supporting players as Francesca’s husband and two children.  However, the stand out for me from the supporting cast was Cass Morgan, who plays Marge, the nosy but devoted neighbor.

This is not a show that boasts loud, flashy musical numbers.  It is a love story, plain and simple, told in the most elegant of ways.  It may not be a traditional love story, but one that needs to be told as well.  At some point in our lives, we have all asked the question, “What if….”   This show asks us to imagine a little more.





Image In the mid 1970’s, my oldest friend, Ellen Sullivan, and her family, would make their way from Pelham Bay, in the Bronx, every weekend to their home in the Hamptons.  Once school was done in June, they were gone for the summer.  Our communications over the summer were limited.  There was no way we could call – a phone call from the Bronx to Long Island was considered long distance and we just could not afford that.  So, I mastered the art – and I mean the art – of letter writing…courtesy of Carole King.

    What shall I write?    What can I say?   How can I tell you how much I miss you?

The weather here has been as nice as it can be
Although it doesn’t really matter much to me
For all the fun I’ll have while you’re so far away
It might as well rain until September

 Well maybe it really did not happen like that..but I think I always imagined it would.  You see for me, everything was a song, a commercial, a television show.  We did write letters, but I just imagined that song in my head, singing it to Ellen –it seemed that singing was so much more effective than simply writing a letter.  The song – It Might As Well Rain Until September.” written by King and Gerry Goffin – was and remains  – one of my favorites.

So when the musical, Beautiful – The Carole King Musical – opens with that song as one of the first numbers, I was instantly transported back to my childhood.  And – although I was barely two years old when this song came out,  I always lived as if I were born a decade earlier – much in part due to this kind of music.

The story of Carole King’s rise to fame from a highly driven Brooklyn  girl to an accomplished song writer to her own career as a solo artist, is told through a series of familiar songs and outstanding performances by the accomplished cast.  The partnership, marriage and eventual break-up of King and Goffin are handled with admiration, respect and dignity.  There is no bitterness or anger in the story – which could have easily been added for dramatic effect.  The King/Goffin relationship is offset by also telling the story of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, accomplished songwriters in their own respect, who become the best friends of the couple.

The choice of songs was fantastic – highlighting both couples’ works.  Audiences will be amazed how many great songs were written by these amazing talents. Some of my favorites in the first act included,Take Good Care of My Baby, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, The Locomotion   and One Fine Day.  The second act boasts classics like It’s Too Late, Beautiful, A Natural Woman and I Feel the Earth Move.

Leading the cast is the amazingly talented Jesse Mueller.  This is the fourth role I have had the pleasure of seeing her perform and her range is just amazing.  She plays King with a sensitivity and passion that makes you root for her success.  She becomes Carole King.  There is an element of her portrayal that has you feeling that as talented as she is, King felt she did not deserve to be that successful, especially after she was thrust into her solo career.  The transformation is superb.  The Tony competition will be fierce this year as Mueller is sure to be a hot contender. The other leads are excellent as well.  Anika Larsen and Jared Spector really stand out.  Jake Epstein’s Goffin is soulful and sad at the same time.  The ensemble is wonderful.

I am not a fan of the jukebox musical, but sometimes they get it right – this is one of those times.  Everything gels and you do “feel the earth move.”  Go see Beautiful, The Carole King Musical.  



Bronx Bombers – Theater Review

BBLong before George Steinbrenner took over the New York Yankees and started paying hefty salaries for the stars of the game, the Yankee Dynasty had been established.  The players like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, and Berra formed that dynasty. Bronx Bombers, the new play on Broadway by Eric Simonson., at the Circle in the Square Theater, pays homage to what made and still makes the Yankees the most successful team in baseball.

First of all, you do not have to be a Yankee fan to enjoy Bronx Bombers, but it does help.  It is a quality story which combines the true events of 1977 with a fantasy dream.  The first act relives the aftermath of the highly publicized and nationally televised all-out brawl between Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson.  Yogi Berra, played with amazing skill, by Peter Scolari, organizes a meeting with Martin, Jackson and Thurman Munson.  The meeting does not go as Berra planned.  The arguments ensue, the egos fly and it leaves Berra with the uneasy feeling that he might be replacing his friend (Martin) as manager, leaving him confused and emotional.  Scolari’s vulnerability as Berra was perfect.  Bill Dawes portrayed the late Thurman Munson with the heart he is remembered for.  Francois Battiste was so good as Reggie Jackson, that I remembered why I despised him but revered him at the same time.

The second act opens up as Yogi and his wife Carmen host a dinner party attended by the Yankee legends. This, of course, is Yogi’s dream.  Tracy Shayne plays Carmen Berra, Shayne, the real life wife of Scolari, is beautifully elegant and the perfect hostess for this fantasy.  As the legends arrive, Berra is struggling with the fact that he might be replacing Martin as the manager.  He is guilty and excited at the same time.  One by one, the legends appear.  Yogi’s dilemma is now secondary to the conversations among the men.  Each one recalls a beef he had with the guy who came before or after him and in the end, the lesson about the team and its dynasty overrules Yogi’s personal issues. After all, it is what the Yankees are made of.

Bill Dawes and Francois Baptiste do double duty as (respectively) Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard, the first African American player on the team.  Chris Henry Coffey’s portrayal of DiMaggio was classic – playing him with the comfort of Mr. Coffee, but the swagger and attitude DeMaggio was known for.  C.J. Wilson (Babe Ruth) and John Wernke (Lou Gehrig) were cast perfectly.  What would a Yankee legend dinner party be without Derek Jeter, played by Christopher Jackson, as the proud but humble guy he is.

Some people say that you need to know some of Yankee history  or you must be a real Yankee fan to understand and love Bronx Bombers. Others say they hated the whole concept – mostly cranky critics – and then there was me..and my party of four..who loved it from start to finish, recommending it to everyone.  It is not an Arthur Miller drama, or a play which delves into the inner demons of its characters.  The show allows us to appreciate Yogi Berra and the Dynasty that is the Yankees.