Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The plot is fairly basic. Set in 1965 Iowa, it focuses on the four-day affair between a lost and lonely Italian war bride named Francesca, whose family is away on a trip, and the equally lost National Geographic photographer Robert, who comes to town to photograph the covered bridges in the area. Feeling a connection like neither has ever felt before, they fall immediately in love but must deal with the consequences of their relationship.
Jason Robert Brown has won two Tony Awards for his scores, yet none of his shows, including this one, has had a Broadway run of longer than a few months. It's unfortunate, as this score is filled with soaring and romantic melodies, and Marsha Norman's book features realistic and fresh dialogue that is infused with small town sensibilities. Norman's script follows the plot of the novel fairly closely and also ensures the character development isn't rushed, which makes the decisions the couple make more meaningful and realistic. While the score is great, and includes a wide range of musical styles, there are a lot of romantic ballads and, with the simple plot, even though it is portrayed realistically, it still feels a bit long.
While I missed seeing this show on Broadway, I did catch the recent national tour. Unfortunately, a musical like this one, which focuses on the small, personal story of two main characters, seemed lost and consumed by the large ASU Gammage auditorium, where the tour played in the Phoenix area. Fortunately, the intimacy of the ABT theatre works perfectly. What was lost at Gammage is made more meaningful by having actors so close to you that they draw you into the story. And while I still believe the show is a bit long, and some of the repetitive ballads could be trimmed, I liked the show much more at ABT than I did at Gammage.
ABT's Artistic Producer Cassandra Klaphake is Francesca. The four roles I've seen Klaphake in before at ABT over the past four seasons have been featured parts, like Ursula in The Little Mermaid or Elizabeth in Young Frankenstein, where she played larger than life, comical supporting parts, or Miss Mona in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, where she was the lead but not in an all entirely consuming role. In Bridges, she is on stage for almost the entire show in a dramatic, realistic role that is full of depth and nuance. With a voice that easily maneuvers its way through the challenging score and a natural acting style that excellently portrays the motherly compassionate traits of this woman, while also beautifully demonstrating the challenges that Francesca faces, this is the best performance I've seen from Klaphake. While some may say that she is miscast or cast against type, as opposed to the waif-like counterparts that played this part on Broadway and in the national tour, it is a welcome change to see a romantic lead who looks different than the images we are constantly bombarded with by Hollywood. This casting challenges our perceptions and preconceived views in a positive way as to what constitutes a romantic duo. And while Klaphake's Italian accent, which occasionally veers into an Irish-sounding brogue, is my only quibble in an otherwise beautiful portrayal, you can at least make out the majority of her dialogue and lyrics, which wasn't the case for the national tour Francesca.
As Robert, a man who is as lost in his life as Francesca is in hers, and looking for something but unsure of what that something is, Bryant Martin injects an element of quiet mystery and a beautiful singing voice that is polished and pure and that soars on his many numbers with an emotional resonance that connects beautifully with Brown's succinct lyrics. The plot does require the two leads fall for each other almost immediately, which Klaphake and Martin maneuver through admirably, though the change from strangers to lovers is a bit too dramatic. I have to believe the connection and progression will be more realistic after they have a few more performances under their belts.
Andy Meyers is excellent as Francesca's husband Bud, who is sensible and sturdy, and Devon Policci and Callista Walker are very good as their two rambunctious and argumentative teenage children. Carolyn McPhee and Rob Watson deliver winning performances as Francesca's nosey neighbor and her husband. McPhee is simply beautiful in her portrayal, infusing her part with an element of deep care and concern for Francesca.
The refined direction by Danny Gorman lets the story unfold naturally, yet also uses the same theatrical device that was used on Broadway of having the ensemble appear on the sidelines to show that the people of Francesca's community are always present and will be impacted by the choices her character makes. While there isn't much dance in the show, choreographer Kurtis Overby adds excellent movements by the ensemble during the scene changes to move the set pieces on and off stage. Josh D. Smith's music direction delivers an exceptional sound from the eight-piece band as well as rich choral sounds from the vibrant ensemble. The creative elements, including Glen Sears' set design, lighting from Karyn Lawrence, and costumes by Lottie Dixon, with wigs and makeup from Amanda Gran, are somewhat simple and plain yet work very effectively to portray the setting, period and location of the show.
The Bridges of Madison County may not be a perfect show, but with a beautiful score and a very good cast, the intimate production that Arizona Broadway Theatre is presenting does well to deliver on the emotional choices and decisions that Francesca and Robert make. This is a show unlike most of the classic musicals that the company presents, and is the Phoenix regional premiere of the musical. ABT's decision to present this relatively new show also makes it a refreshing and rewarding experience for audiences to see a musical that no one else in town has done.
The Bridges of Madison County, through May 13th, 2018, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane, Peoria AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.azbroadway.org or by calling 623-776-8400.
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
* Member, Actors Equity Association