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Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Bridges of Madison County
Marriott Theatre
Review by John Olson | Season Schedule

Also see John's reviews of Ah, Wilderness! and Moby Dick

Kathy Voytko and Nathaniel Stampley
Photo by Liz Lauren
In the story first told by Robert Waller in his novel The Bridges of Madison County, two perfectly kind, honest and reasonable people—an Italian war bride who's lived in rural Iowa for 18 years and a magazine photographer on assignment to shoot photos of the area's covered bridges—have a chance meeting that leads to a loving but illicit affair that could end the woman's marriage. Neither of them sought out the affair or initiated it. It began subtly and an emotional bond developed almost stealthily.

In the musical adaptation by bookwriter Marsha Norman and composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown, the progression of the affair is depicted sensitively and slowly. Though my memory of the 1995 film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep is faint, it seems to me the story is better suited for musical theater than film. Conventions of the musical genre better allow the sorts of internal monologues that can reveal a character's thoughts—and since the Italian-Iowan housewife Francesca and photographer Robert are slow to articulate their feelings out loud, Brown's musical soliloquies are effective. In the Marriott Theatre staging by Nick Bowling, the audience is close enough to read the character's faces and body language to compensate for the closeups of the film medium, and Bowling has in Kathy Voytko and Nathaniel Stampley two magnificent leads who can communicate the mixture of passion and anxiety the two experience.

Francesca is the better developed character of the two, and it's really her story more than Robert's. After losing a lover in World War II, she at age 18 married an American GI after the war ended and moved to Iowa with her new husband. We see through flashbacks that Francesca had a passion for her slain lover that she at least now does not feel for her husband Bud (a very solid performance by Broadway's Bart Shatto). Francesca also has a certain envy of her wilder sister still in Italy, especially in comparison to Francesca's own comfortable but predictable rural life. Voytko shows all these contradictions—though Francesca values her family and husband, she feels she has missed out on so much of life and is quickly taken with the photographer who has travelled around the world, even to her native Naples, Italy. It's a look at Robert's photos of her hometown that finally unlocks all her emotions.

We're not told as much about Robert, though there's a flashback showing his ex-wife as a rather shallow woman. Robert tells us he's mostly been isolated by his constant travelling—and unable to make lasting emotional connections. It seems the genuineness of Francesca, borne equally of her simple Italian upbringing and her strong Iowa values, offers something he badly needs and recognizes he has been lacking. Stampley clearly shows us Robert's recognition that he too may have missed out on something that ought to be a part of a rounded life—a loving relationship and the support of family. Stampley is extremely likeable as Robert and he and Voytko both have singing voices one could listen to all day.

There is a simplicity and honesty in this musical that is refreshing and admirable. The writers make no easy or manipulative choices. And though this very intimate—essentially two-person—story is expanded for the musical theater stage by adding an ensemble of rural neighbors and attendees at a state fair, the ensemble is used sparingly. Jeffrey D. Kmiec's set for this in-the-round production is mainly simple furniture, plus a cut-out window for nosy neighbor Marge (Wydetta Carter) to spy through. There's also a central platform that rises from the stage occasionally to increase focus on the characters, and to reveal a see-through covered bridge as the bridge's vertical supports emerge from the floor. The production design is also notable for its spot-on costumes by Sally Dolembo that feel middle-American but do not stereotype or condescend to the small town, rural characters. This respectful sense of place is further established by the projections designed by Anthony Churchill that surround the audience in an Iowa landscape.

Yet, for all its good intentions, The Bridges of Madison County doesn't land as effectively as it should, and the fault lies mainly in Brown's score. Though his melodies are lovely and exceptionally well performed under Ryan T. Nelson's musical direction, there's no musical arc to propel the story. So many of the numbers come from the same place—a quiet, lush romanticism that is appealing, but over two and a half hours of stage time gives us the feeling of having stayed in the same place rather than on an emotional journey. To understand what's missing here, one might compare it to Sondheim and Lapine's Passion, a musical that similarly deals with the development of an unlikely romance and love triangle. Sondheim's score for Passion varies its moods—from the initial love ballad "Happiness," a lush and joyous piece, through the rigid rhythms suggesting the story's military setting and building to "Loving You," a love song with underlying pain. Its climax is "No One Has Ever Loved Me," an intense declaration of love that's more powerful than the initial "Happiness." There's a progression, a building of the stakes, that Brown fails to achieve in Bridges.

Why and how does someone fall deeply in love? As another show tune says, "Who can explain it, who can tell you why?" Maybe no one can entirely explain it through words, but perhaps it can be communicated viscerally through music. Even if Brown's musicalization of Waller's story falls short of the mark as a dramatic score, this production is still satisfying for its superb performances and its honesty. It's commendable for a commercial company like the Marriott Theatre to give it a slot in its season.

The Bridges of Madison County will run through August 13, 2017, at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, Illinois. For tickets or more information visit or call 847-634-0200.

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