Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Bridges of Madison County
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Rob Richardson and Joan Hess
Photo by Kevin Berne
The sky, the sky, the sky ... If ever there was a stage show where the sky should be listed in the program as a leading actor, it would be the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production of The Bridges of Madison County for their puffy rivers of clouds that flow so gloriously in ever-changing narratives of colors and shadows. Set designer Wilson Chin and lighting designer Pamila Z. Gray are key voices in bringing Marsha Norman's book for this musical to life, especially when the Roseman Bridge itself suddenly descends in three skeletal pieces with enough beauty and dignity to draw delighted gasps from the audience. When William Liberatore adds his magical flare in directing ten outstanding musicians as they inspiringly play Jason Robert Brown's Tony Award-winning music and orchestration (an eclectic mix of pop, country, gospel, folk, and even opera), there is no doubt TheatreWorks has another major hit on its hands. That is true even before taking into account Mr. Brown's captivating lyrics, Robert Kelley's meticulously creative direction, and a cast individually and collectively stellar in every respect.

Based on Robert James Waller's novel by the same name, The Bridges of Madison County is a moving tale of love and lust found and lost as well as a emotional dreamscape of memories that intermingle with reality to challenge obligations and guide ultimate decisions. Joan Hess is Francesca, an Iowan wife and mother of two on a farm in 1965, a place very different from the Italian town she left at the end of a devastating world war, memories of which she recalls with opera-worthy, enchanting vocals in "Almost Real." When the rest of her family leave for a three-day journey to take her daughter's star steer, Stevie, to the Iowa State Fair, Francesca intends just to relax, read, and sip her favorite ice tea.

That is, those are her plans until a lanky, rugged, but breathtakingly handsome man with a camera shows up on her doorstep looking for directions to one of the county's famous covered bridges. When Rob Richardson as the National Geographic photographer Robert explains to Francesca in his hauntingly rich baritone, "I've been looking for something at ev'ry bridge that I crossed," it is already clear in the way he looks at her, and she at him, that he has finally found that something. Even after taking him to the bridge and then inviting him back to her home for tea that turns into brandy that becomes dinner, Francesca's forward and almost frisky maneuvers have yet to define the ultimate course. But as they sing together in "Wondering," "You're wondering if it's true, nothing's gonna happen, nothing has to happen," their increasingly soaring voices that open up as big as the night sky twinkling above them leave no doubt what is in fact going to happen.

Casting director Leslie Martinson struck gold in finding a couple who create the electric sparks of attraction that Joan Hess and Rob Richardson do as Francesca and Robert. They leave no doubt in audience minds that their sudden-found love is totally believable as they look longingly at each other, touch in soft and subtle manners, and finally mold into one interlinked, gasping body. Added pluses include Francesca's authentically lingering Italian accent (even after twenty years as an Iowan)—kudos to Dialect Coach Kimily Conkle—and her ability to use slight hints of vibration in her sustained notes to remind us there is always some uncertainty hiding behind her decisions to give herself fully to this man at her doorstep. And the capstone in casting Mr. Richardson is finding someone who can sing both soft and bellowing phrases that seem never to need a breath. His notes ripple and pulsate with a clarity so pure to bring tears, whether in the country ballad duet with acoustic guitar "Before and After You" or in the a cappella "It All Fades Away."

When Francesca's husband Bud (Timothy Gulan) leaves in the truck with two teens and a steer, Jason Robert Brown's music and Mr. Gulan's distinctive vocals have a mysterious, longing air that seems to be stirring up a warning from somewhere unknown. Bud sings, "We'll be home before you notice that we're gone, three days isn't very long," to which Francesca echoes in something close to worried anticipation, "And you'll be home before I know it." Actors, composer and director combine their forces early on to let us know that something is going to happen in these supposedly short three days that could have effects long into the future.

Timothy Gulan's Bud is a likeable, average Joe who is clearly a good (even if sometimes exasperated) father and a loving husband. Mr. Gulan ensures that we want to be on Bud's side even when we later desperately hope that true love might win out between Francesca and Robert. Complicating our sense of being torn in loyalties are Francesca's two kids, Carolyn and Michael, who are as spirited, unpredictable, loving, and vulnerable as teens often are. Not only do Jessia Hoffman and Matt Herrero convince us they are the real things as teens, they each bring such enthusiastically powerful vocals in "Home Before You Know It" and "The Real World" that it is a pity we do not get to hear more from them.

Within a story that has a lot of family drama, sexual passion, and relationship indecision threading throughout, Marsha Norman has cleverly tossed two delightfully nosy neighbors, a married couple who remind one of a variety of gossipy but lovable ones from 1950s/60s sitcoms. Marge (Maureen McVerry) is channeling Ethel Mertz from "I Love Lucy" and has the world's biggest heart for helping out her neighbors as well as a giggling curiosity about what is really going on between the sheets next door. As she peers out the window, she relates all her giddy suspicions to her husband Charlie, Martin Rojas Dietrich, who even looks and acts a lot like bald-headed Fred Mertz. Ms. McVerry gets one of the night's biggest rounds of applause as she becomes a kitchen counter, nightclub singer in "Get Closer," using her cookie dough filled spoon as a mike and her bowl as a lover, imploring her shocked but tantalized husband, "Daddy, let me get closer to you." These two neighbors are fun and bring a different kind of love and heart to this otherwise steamy tale.

Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown at several points use memories as a way to expand and complicate our views of the characters before us. Robert Kelley takes the prod from the script and directs sequences that are exceptionally conceived where real-time conversations continue between two people as one of them also becomes a part of his/her memory playing out on the side. Further inspired direction has those in the memories sometimes looking in with some ache at the present reality, as happens when Robert's ex-wife Marian looks longingly from a memory he is having of her into the kitchen where he is also talking with Francesca. Courtney Stokes sings "Another Life" in a sweet, young voice as the wife Robert left behind, letting notes float in curves and spirals with growing intensity, "And there is so much I still wonder ... Did he need me? Did he know love is open, love is easy?" (Ms. Stokes also knocks the socks off the crowd in a rousing opening act two number, "State Road 21" as a state fair entertainer amidst a chorus of cotton candy, popcorn, and corn dog vendors.)

Sean Fenton and Christine Capsuto round out this exciting cast playing a variety of roles and being full-voiced, able additions to the big harmonies of the ensemble. Besides sky and bridge, Wilson Chin has created set designs that glide effortlessly on and off the stage to create a farmhouse full of mid-sixties treasures (like a green, dial-faced radio and products some of us remember from the grocery shelves of those days), a majestic windmill of wood, and other scenes from bedroom to a small town's dress-shop. Fumiko Bielefeldt performs her normal miracles as designer and tailor extraordinaire with costumes that accent both the down-home nature of Iowa and the hot-bloodied affair taking part between two happenstance lovers. Jeff Mockus' sound design lets the sounds of Iowan nature, of a rural household, and of a state fair carnival all come to full life.

Anyone coming to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's The Bridges of Madison County fearing the evening could drip with sappiness will certainly leave thinking anything but. The soaring score with haunting melodies that linger long after final curtain call combines with a director, creative team, and cast to weave a story that captures and holds full attention the entire two hours, forty minutes (with intermission), stirring many, sometimes conflicting emotions that are deeply felt and long remembered.

The Bridges of Madison County, through April 29, 2018, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. Tickets and information are available online at by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.