Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The Bridges of Madison County is based on the 1992 novel by Robert James Walker, which was also the source material for the famous 1995 film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Though the production had difficulty finding an audience during its 2014 run on Broadway, many critics and audience members who did see it were impressed. Set in 1965 in rural Iowa, the story focuses on Francesca, an Italian war bride who meets a National Geographic photographer named Robert when he stops for help with directions. Over the next few days, a connection, both emotional and physical, develops between the two and life changing decisions are made.
The book for the musical is by Marsha Norman (The Secret Garden). Norman brings a welcome female perspective to the storytelling. The plot is conveyed through a variety of meanspersonal internal introspection (expressed in song), sung dialogue, narration, flashbacks, and straightforward musical theater conventions. The story is told at a deliberate pace to match the more relaxed country setting and tone, but never in a dull manner. Actually, much of the piece is fueled by the ever-growing emotional stakes at hand, and the passion felt and displayed by the leading characters. Ms. Norman's adaptation is both tender and thought-provoking, and maintains the romantic and passionate elements of the story without being melodramatic. The book's only weaknesses is that the last few scenes, chronicling several decades following the four days covered in the rest of the show, seem a bit tacked on, though they are efficiently and skillfully crafted.
The thrilling score for the show is by Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last Five Year), who was featured in a solo concert at the Victoria Theatre in Dayton a few weeks ago. Brown's songs capture the many emotions of the characters musicallyloneliness, longing, lust, desperation, hope, and appreciation. The varied and textured musical language, with Brown's trademark rhythmic drive, is matched by intelligent, soul-baring lyrics. The opening "To Build a Home" effectively establishes Francesca's sacrifice and isolation with a distinctive European sound, and is quickly contrasted musically by her husband Bud's fast-paced and country flavored "Home Before You Know It." The score is at its best with a number of pulsating, passionate duets with soaring melodies and poetic lyrics, including "Falling Into You" and "Before and After You" / "One Second and A Million Miles." Just as memorable and stirring is Robert's summation of the relationship and its impact on his life toward the end of the show in "It All Fades Away." Jason Robert Brown deservedly won Tony Awards for Bridges for both his score and his lush and well-suited orchestrations.
Bartlett Sher (The Light in the Piazza, South Pacific revival) supplies fluid direction focusing on the interrelationships and internal struggles of the characters. There are many very effective blocking and acting choices, and Sher's direction is generally first-rate and keeps the action moving along. His use of the ensemble is hit and miss, though. They are used to bring on the many smaller set pieces during scene transitions, representing the "everyone knows everyone" closeness of the Iowa small town, but having the cast sit as spectators along the edges of the stage is somewhat distracting and unnecessary. Keith Levenson leads a wonderful sounding orchestra playing Brown's always challenging but rewarding accompaniment (which features a lot of apt acoustic guitar).
Elizabeth Stanley is primarily known for comedic roles, but here she displays touching, nuanced acting as Francesca, capturing the lonely isolation and desperation of the displaced housewife, bringing many layers to her characterization. Though it's a bit difficult to understand all of the lyrics through the Italian accent she uses for the role, Ms. Stanley's operatic singing is exquisite and very well suited. As Robert, Andrew Samonsky skillfully conveys the guarded nature of this rugged and worldly traveler, and shows off colorful and impassioned vocals. The pair has excellent onstage chemistry and connection, and each convincingly presents the awakening of something new within their characters.
The remaining cast, including Cullen R. Titmas (as reliable yet predictably boring husband Bud), Caitlin Houlahan, and John Campione (as Francesca's feisty teenage children), Katie Klaus (Robert's ex Marian and a State Fair Singer), and May Callanan and David Hess (as Francesca's supportive and often comical neighbors), all do very well in support, and the entire cast supplies some beautiful and haunting choral work.
The scenic design by Michael Yeargan features a single but versatilely used backdrop, the frames of a bridge, and the house, and many smaller set pieces to effectively establish each setting. Catherine Zuber's rural 1960s costumes are accurate and apt, and the lighting by Donald Holder features a beautiful color palette capturing the changing sunlight (which is important to the plot) via the backdrop and scrim.
Though a musical version of The Bridges of Madison County may sound like the theatrical equivalent of a "chick flick," the intriguing character study, thoughtful tone, and exemplary songs make the show a good choice for any adult theatergoer with a warm-blooded heart. The beautiful performances provided by the national tour cast, especially leads Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky, make this a must-see show.
The Bridges of Madison County, at the Schuster Center in Dayton, Ohio, through March 20, 2016. For tickets and schedule, call 937-228-3630 or visit http://www.schustercenter.org. For more information on the tour, visit bridgesmusical.com.