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.