Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Kit's review of Le Switch
In keeping with the story, this is a small-scale musicalsmall cast and ensemble, a bit of movement but nothing close to a production number, no lavish set piecesyet an enormous musical in terms of the feelings unleashed by its two central characters, Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid. The tale is told by way of Pulitzer and Tony Award winner Marsha Norman's book and the score by Jason Robert Brown, for which he won two Tony Awardsone as composer, and a second for his soaring orchestrations.
Norman jettisoned the movie's framing devise of Francesca's grown children learning of her affair and life-long love for Robert in their mother's diary after both their parents have died, making the bulk of the film a lengthy flash-back. Instead, the show opens with Francesca (played by a luminous Elizabeth Stanley) alone on stage, recounting how she left Naples with Bud, an American G.I., as a war bride in 1946, and made a life for herself in rural Iowa. She is given voice through Brown's opening piece "To Build a Home," building from a quiet confessional into an almost joyful expression of the fullness of her life, as the bare structural elements of her Iowa home fall into place, and her neighbors and family emerge from the wings. The melody has the feel of music on a merry-go-round, a tune that exudes gaiety but on a ride that goes nowhere. For all Francesca's blessings and the sound footing of her life, we sense from the start that something is missing in her heart.
When Bud and their two squabbling teenagers Carolyn and Michael head off to a state fair for four days, Francesca welcomes a respite from the constant noise and demands of her family. Robert Kincaid shows up in her driveway seeking directions to one of the historic covered bridges in Madison County, the subject of a photograph spread for the Geographic. Directions on rural back roads being hard to pin down, Francesca offers instead to show him the way herself. Innocent acts of helpfulness and hospitality lead Francesca and Robert into opening up to one another. For Francesca, being with an attractive man who sees beauty and art, a man who can give her undivided attention without the day-to-day strain of farm work and boisterous children is a thrilling, if frightening, occurrence.
Norman judiciously draws from Waller's book to depict the progression of Francesca and Robert's attraction, from their mutual initial resistance to the steady shedding of barriers. Their emotional journey is expressed by Brown's score, which is among the most gloriously beautiful stage scores in recent memory, on par with Adam Guettel's rapturous The Light in the Piazza. Francesca's pieces have an operatic feel, in keeping with her submerged passions and inward longing for her Italian homeland. Robert's early songs convey an unrooted life, based on capturing the present moment ("Temporarily Lost," "The World Inside a Frame") but acquires more warmth and a heartland feel ("Who We Are and Who We Want to Be") as he acknowledges his feelings for Francesca.
We also see that the electricity between Francesca and Robert does not occur in a vacuum. Scenes of Bud at the fair reveal in his own less emotive way that he misses Francesca. We meet Madge and Charlie, Francesca and Bud's neighbors, a late-middle aged couple who, having noticed Robert's comings and goings next door, struggle over what kind of judgement is called for and how to be a true friend in the face of what they believe to be happening.
Francesca must choose between a man who has awakened her passion for life and a man who has been kind and dutiful to her, as well as the children she cherishes. How she decides, and the outcomes this brings for all involved, is played out with sensitivity and a sense of truth. Granted, the idea of a handsome, caring stranger showing up in your driveway while your partner is gone for several days at first blush feels like the realm of fantasy, but once we accept that this could happen, it begins to feel as if it undoubtedly has happened at some time, in some place. The question of reality, then, is not "could this really happen?" but "is this how people would really behave?" The show's creators answer that question in a way that casts no blame and bestows affection on each of the characters.
Bartlett Sher's original Broadway direction is recreated for the national tour by Tyne Rafaeli. The fluid movement maintains a sense of urgency as Francesca and Robert push the boundaries of what can happen between then in four days. The only misfire is the device of other cast members seated around the periphery, as if to underscore the fact the society in which these two adults found one another remains to be reckoned with. Other times, charactersRobert's ex-wife, or Budcross through Francesca's kitchen, unseen as if a ghost, again suggesting nagging ties to their past even as Francesca and Robert feel propelled forward. This may have seemed a way to paint the story of two people falling in love on a larger canvas, but in practice it feels awkward and overdone.
Andrew Samonsky has the rugged yet still boyish good looks (a young Robert Redford) to convince as Robert, and conveys the spirit of a man who has chosen to live without ties. Because we believe that he has chosen that life, the ignition of a new desire to share life with Francesca is all the more moving. His baritone is absolutely beautiful, soaring as he expresses his feelings in music. As Francesca, Elizabeth Stanley matches him with her gorgeous soprano. However, the operatic style of singing and the Italian accent she uses, while fully fitting the character, make it hard to understand all of the words as she sings. Even without the words, though, her emotive strength and Brown's lushly romantic compositions convey her feelings. She shows us, moment to moment, Francesca's growing acknowledgement of unfulfilled longings. When Samonsky and Stanley join voices in the act one closer "Falling Into You," their combined heat feels about to break into flames.
Cullen R. Titmas instills Bud with the weariness of a good man laden with responsibilities. We believe he loves his wife, but at the same time has come to take her for granted. Titmas does not have a strong singing voice, and his solo "Something Like a Dream," which is where his tenderness toward Francesca is finally expressed, suffers in comparison to Robert's exultant declarations of love as sung by Samonsky. Mary Callahan brings wry humor as well as kindness to her portrayal of the ever-watchful neighbor Marge, while David Hess does a fine job expressing long-married love. Katie Klaus impresses as Robert's ex-wife Marian, whose song "Another Life," a blend of folk and samba beats, describes the blossoming and fading of her love for Robert, even as Robert and Francesca enter into love anew. John Campione as Michael and Caitlin Houlahan as Carolyn are both well suited to their roles as quarreling siblings who chafe against their parents' rule but are basically good kids.
Michael Yeargan's set design, adapted for the tour by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, uses the barest of elementsroof joists, a staircase, a screen door frameto suggest the Johnsons' cozy home and other locations. Most impressive are the three descending square-framed arches that manage to convey the elegant simplicity of a covered bridge. Donald Holder's lighting design contributes enormously, as changes in the angle and intensity of light drive Robert's photographic artistry, and also marks the passing of day into night, to day and night again, as the aborning love affair pushes against the calendar. Catherine Zuber's costumes are appropriately suited to the mid-1960s period and the rural setting.
With the passing of time, The Bridges of Madison County is not likely to be as huge a draw as in its mid-1990s heyday on title recognition alone. What should draw an audience to this show is its very human story, a depiction of challenges and choices that real people face, with real happiness and real pain both hanging in the balance. It is warm and heartfelt without a drop of cynicism. Its deservedly praised score and well-crafted book, along with strong performances in the touring company, make for a moving and memorable work of musical theater.
The Bridges of Madison County runs through June 26, 2016, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: $39.00 - $134.00. Student and educator rush tickets can be purchased at the box office two hours before each performance at $25.00, two tickets per valid ID. For ticket information call 612-373-5661 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit bridgesmusical.com.
Book: Marsha Norman, based on the novel by Robert James Waller; Music, Lyrics and Orchestrations: Jason Robert Brown; Director: Bartlett Sher; Tour Director: Tyne Rafaeli; Movement: Danny Medford; Set Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Catherine Zuber; Lighting Design: Donald Holder; Sound Design: Jon Weston; Additional Set and Adaption: Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams; Hair and Wig Design: David Brian Brown; Casting: Telsey + Company; Music Director: Keith Levenson; Music Coordinators: Michael Keller and Michael Aarons; Music Supervisor: Tom Murray; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis; Production Stage Manager: Melissa Chacón.
Cast: Cole Burden (ensemble), Mary Callanan (Marge), John Campione (Michael), Caitlyn Caughell (ensemble), Brad Greer (Paolo, ensemble), David Hess (Charlie), Caitlin Houlahan (Carolyn), Katie Claus (Marion/Chiara/State Fair Singer), Amy Linden (ensemble), Trista Moldovan (ensemble), Andrew Samonsky (Robert), Jessica Sheridan (ensemble), Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca), Cullen R. Titmas (Bud), Tom Treadwell (ensemble), J. Michael Zygo (ensemble).