Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Based on the bestselling novel by Robert James Waller, The Bridges of Madison County is set in 1965 Iowa and focuses on the four-day affair between a lost and lonely Italian war bride whose family is away on a trip and the equally lost National Geographic photographer 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.
Marsha Norman's book for the show follows the plot of Waller's novel fairly closely and she instills her dialogue with a freshness and a perfect Midwest America sensibility. Brown's score is sensational, featuring a combination of operatic soaring songs along with bluegrass and country flavors. However, it is a ballad heavy score so there are several similar sounding songs as well as a few for the supporting characters that slow the plot down. With a running time of over two and a half hours it could be tightened, with some of the songs cut or trimmed, and have an even more lasting impact.
The cast for the national tour is excellent. Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky are Francesca and Robert and both have superb voices that bring an emotional connection to Brown's succinct lyrics. Both characters are similarlost in their current lives and looking for something but unsure what it isand the connection they have for each other is immediate and the heat they generate is palpable. While Stanley sports a fairly good and consistent Italian accent, which sounds lovely, it's sometimes hard to understand what she is singing due to the combination of her accent and Brown's soaring, operatic score.
Cullen R. Titmas is sturdy and sensible as Francesca's husband Bud, and John Campione and Caitlin Houlahan are appropriately youthful and rambunctious as their two teenage children. As Francesca's nosey neighbor, Mary Callanan is excellent and instills the role with a combination of care and an element of surprise. She also has a powerful singing voice.
Bartlett Sher's original Broadway direction has been recreated for the tour by Tyne Rafaeli with movement by Danny Mefford. The staging for the dramatic scenes and the movement work very well together to tell the story and move the plot along. Especially effective is how the ensemble is used to not only move the various set pieces around as the scenes change but also in how at many times they are on the sides and at the back of the stage, seated, while the more dramatic moments unfold. These elements add a theatricality to the piece while also giving the sense that the people surrounding Francesca's life in Iowa are always present, so her responsibilities are always felt. The ensemble also adds a soaring choral voice to several of the musical numbers.
The creative elements, all of which are modeled on the Broadway designs, are excellent. Michael Yeargan's set design (adapted for the tour by Mikiko Suzuki Macadams) uses only one large backdrop of Iowa cornfields and several small set pieces to immediately move us from Francesca's home to the streets of her town and the bridge where her love affair with Robert begins. With the stunningly beautiful lighting design from Donald Holder, the set changes dramatically from bright orange and red sun-filled days to lustful, romantic evenings with hues of dark blues and shadows. Catherine Zuber's costumes are simple, folksy yet period specific and they heighten the heat in the scenes with Francesca and Robert.
Jason Robert Brown has had five shows on Broadway and while he has yet to have a Broadway hit it's fortunate that audiences across America are able to experience The Bridges of Madison County and his exceptional score. While this musical isn't perfect, the end result still evokes a deep feeling of romance with two interesting and intriguing characters and a cast who is able to do justice to Brown's music.
The Bridges of Madison County runs through February 21st, 2016, at ASU Gammage located at 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, please visit bridgesmusical.com.
Book: Marsha Norman