Regional Reviews: Boston
The Bridges of Madison County
The fires she used to set
The hearts she used to break
The lies she used to tell
And the woman she grew up to be.
The opening of The Bridges of Madison County, now at SpeakEasy Stage Company, feels like a fresh breath of air. Francesca Johnson, as played and sung exquisitely by Jennifer Ellis, fills a sparse stage with the story of her travel from Naples to America eighteen years before, the wife of a U.S. soldier coming to Madison County, Iowa, to escape World War II and start a life. As Francesca weaves her spell on us, the stage fills with the bustle of small-town Iowa in 1965, and we float on the haunting melody in Jason Robert Brown's score, Ellis's Italian-accented soprano set against the folksy fiddle and guitar strains of the Midwest. As Francesca sings of being a million miles from her old home, living a life that's now ordinary, everything comes together in a moment that's anything but.
This blissful sensation recurs several times during The Bridges of Madison County, when everything suspends and Brown's openhearted music takes over, sinuously pulling us closer into these characters' souls. But the show, inevitably, settles back to earth after the rush of these songs, when loneliness and heartbreak and unexpected joy feel palpable, and we wait for the chance to be transported again.
At its heart, The Bridges of Madison County concerns two people who are miles from where they expected to be: Francesca, settled into her steady rural farm life, and Robert Kincaid, a wanderlust National Geographic photographer who comes to her door one day. Francesca's family has gone to the state fair for the weekend when Robert arrives, seeking directions to the last covered bridge in the county he needs to shoot for the magazine. A knock on the door, a trip to the bridge together, and two lives are suddenly connected as if by fate.
Director M. Bevin O'Gara keeps the staging clean and unfussy, with one eye on the tight-knit Madison County community watching over Francesca during her weekend with Robert. Like Francesca, slowly building a home piece by piece, O'Gara allows her actors space to tell the story with minimal props and scenery (by Cameron Anderson). O'Gara's production imagines the romantic view of covered bridges and wide-open farmland with a few simple, effective projections (by Garrett Herzig), letting the cast and the sweet sounds of Matthew Stern's orchestra fill in the rest.
In typical musical theater fashion, Brown and book writer Marsha Norman open up the story beyond the leads; the neighbors, Francesca's brusque but caring husband Bud, and their two bratty children all get something to sing. But these characters feel peripheral and broadly etched, and less worthy of diverting our attention from the central couple. Kerry A. Dowling and Will McGarrahan, as the Johnsons' neighbors, do share a few sweet moments; Dowling is touching when she comes to comfort Francesca at the end of the weekend.
The musical, which opened on Broadway in 2014, is adapted from Robert James Waller's wildly popular 1992 novel, which Clint Eastwood directed as a movie starring himself and Meryl Streep. In both incarnations, the lovers find each other in middle age. Their sudden, surprising romance springs from the years come and gone, seemingly improbable for two people who've grown accustomed to their lives as they are. At SpeakEasy, Francesca's lover, played by Christiaan Smith, is practically a Boy Scout by comparison, more of a standard leading man heartthrob than someone with life experience under his belt. And as written, Robert remains something of a cipher. We learn more about him from his ex-wife Marian in one revealing song about their failed four-year marriage ("Another Life," well-sung by Alessandra Valea) than we do from his own lips. Smith has a gentle, brooding tenor that makes the most of Robert's ballads, but he isn't able to show us what makes Robert a compelling match for Francesca.
But when Jason Robert Brown's music and Jennifer Ellis's moving portrayal of Francesca Johnson intersect, the musical becomes irresistible. Brown has written some of the most romantic music heard in the theater in years; there are echoes of Adam Guettel's score for The Light in the Piazza, including the near-classical art-song bent of Francesca's vocal lines. And Francesca comes alive in song, whether escaping into her memories of life before the war or tremulously searching for the right words to describe the man she's falling for. Her second-act art song, "Almost Real," is breathtaking, as she recalls the expectations placed on her as a young woman in Italy. There's an ache in Ellis's voice as she sings of fleeing to America with Bud, hoping she'll finally be free, only to become trapped in her new life here. Ellis incisively captures what it's like to be a woman torn between her obligations and her own internal desires. And the music lives in the moments when those desires take overmoments that feel like more than a second, more than just one weekend.
The Bridges of Madison County is presented by the SpeakEasy Stage Company through June 3, 2017, at the Boston Center for the Arts (539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA). Tickets are available at speakeasystage.com or through the Boston Theatre Scene box office at (617) 933-8600.
Cast: Jennifer Ellis (Francesca); Christiaan Smith (Robert); Christopher Chew (Bud); Kerry A. Dowling (Marge); Will McGarrahan (Charlie); Nick Siccone (Michael); Katie Elinoff (Carolyn); Alessandra Valea (Marian/Chiara); Peter S. Adams, Rachel Belleman, Ellen Peterson, Edward Simon (Ensemble).
Creative Team: Book by Marsha Norman; Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown; Orchestrations by Jason Robert Brown; Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara; Music Direction: Matthew Stern; Choreography: Misha Shields; Scenic Design: Cameron Anderson; Costume Design: Mark Nagle; Lighting Design: Annie Weigand; Sound Design: David Reiffel; Projection Design: Garrett Herzig; Production Stage Manager: L. Arkansas Light; Assistant Stage Manager: Dominique D. Burford.