NEW YORK — The Iowa featured in the new musical "The Bridges of Madison County" is flat indeed but, oh boy, the voices soar.
Brown, the talented composer behind "13," ''The Last Five Years" and "Parade," has never had a real New York hit. This should be it.
The musical, which opened Thursday, is based on the Robert James Waller novel, which was made into a 1995 movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. For this one, the movie stars have given way to some Broadway veterans.
It's about a four-day love affair in 1965 between Robert Kincaid, a world-weary photographer on assignment to shoot a series of covered bridges, and Francesca, an Italian-American housewife who was rescued from bombed-out Naples by a U.S. serviceman, who became her husband, but lives without real passion.
A sometimes bloated and meandering book by Marsha Norman and some odd choices by director Bartlett Sher can't take anything away from a score that brilliantly goes from torch song to blues and honky-tonk to virtual opera, led by two actors with genuine feeling and a seemingly endless reservoir of notes.
There's a neat, breezy set that's heavy on fences by Michael Yeargan — a simple triangle stands in for a rooftop and there's a terrific tree — but it may leave purists aghast that there are no covered bridges, only nesting rectangles. Relax, you'll get over it.
An adulterous affair isn't the normal stuff of musicals but the audience immediately buys into O'Hara's sense of an unfulfilled life and her flowering under the touch of Pasquale's hunkiness. The fact that Francesca's husband (the always-reliable Hunter Foster) doesn't come across as particularly evil is nicely done. But a messy and confrontational side plot about the kids "growing up" at the county fair — and conveniently leaving Francesca home alone during the affair — doesn't add much.
The play has some other weird elements, in particular, neighbors and minor characters sit onstage during much of the show, including the most intimate moments. At the top of Act 2, the new lovers are suddenly revealed in their post-coital bed in a scene marred somewhat by a guy on the side strumming a guitar.
It may be a nod to small-town distrust of outsiders, but seems to poorly mimic "Once," the neighboring musical also about a missed love connection. It might have been better to play with the use of people occupying the same stage as memories, as is done when Kincaid's ex-wife wordlessly enters Francesca's kitchen like a ghost and then sings a stunning song about their marriage, "Another Life."
Once the real lovers do connect — Act 1 drags a little with their idle chitchat ("Was I supposed to get kale?" he asks) — we're off to a terrific Act 2 with a string of musical pearls in the break-out hit duet "One Second & A Million Miles" and a smartly staged "When I'm Gone."
Pasquale then smashes the sound barrier with his "It All Fades Away" and the company finishes with a triumphant "Always Better," led by a brilliant O'Hara, giving it her all. These are such convincing, yearning lovers that the first few rows might feel residual heat.
Yes, Francesca's Italian accent sometimes veers into Transylvania, her kids look more likely to be Ph.D. candidates than teens, and a neighbor's arc from nosy troublemaker to ally isn't very smooth, but the sophisticated, sumptuous score is cause for celebration.
"Iowa is so flat, you feel like the only way out is to blast straight up like a rocket," Francesca tells her lover. And so the pair do, thrillingly.
Mark Kennedy can be reached at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits