Jason Robert Brown is one of my favorite musical composers of the 21st Century and I’m delighted that his 2014 Tony- Award winning musical The Bridges of Madison County has stopped in Minneapolis on its national tour. Winner for best score in 2014, this musical with music and lyrics by Brown and book by Marsha Norman tells the story of Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley), a war bride from Naples, Italy, discontent with her life on an Iowa farm. While her children Michael (John Campione, Bryan Welnicki in the performance I saw) and Carolyn (Caitlin Houlahan) prepare to go to the Indiana State Fair to hopefully win a blue ribbon for their prize steer, Francesca is homesick and feeling distant from her husband, Bud (Cullen R. Titmas) and from a farming life that she never envisioned for herself. Enters Robert (Andrew Samonsky), a photographer from the National Geographic who’s come to town to take photos of a covered bridge that’s a local landmark. Francesca drives him to the bridge and, while watching him take photos and hearing him recount his travels in Naples, she falls in love with him. Amidst phone calls from nosy neighbors Charlie and Marge (David Hess and Mary Callanan) and her husband calling to check on her, Francesca has a four-day affair with Robert that reawakens the person she once was and causes her to question whether she is leading the life she really wants.
Based on the novel by Robert James Waller (and known for the film directed by Clint Eastwood), this musical does an exceptional job of adapting the tale. Though I’m not as familiar with the source (I was born in 1990 so I missed its high point of popularity by being too young), I am familiar with the general story and am impressed how the staging delicately balances the internal struggle of the characters. All the actors do an excellent job and I was especially enthused to see Samonsky perform, as he was recently in La Jolla Playhouse’s adaption of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which I’m a little obsessed with). Stanley’s portrayal of Francesca was also lovely and I was particularly pleased to hear an Italian accent on stage that more or less sounded accurate (and after hearing accents like those in The Most Happy Fella, this is much appreciated change.)
The story itself is an interesting one, a different look at an affair that doesn’t just show guilt but presents the sudden romance as understandable. In his notes on the show, Jason Robert Brown says, “We can love in many different ways, and we can love different things simultaneously. It is hard – it is insane – to place one love above another.” The show grapples beautifully with that struggle, showing Francesca’s inability to leave her family but her inability to stop feeling what she does for Robert. Though this may feel comfortable or comforting for our cultural perceptions of monogamy or relationships, it does provide a powerful look at the question of “What if?”
Though the emotional intensity isn’t as high as I desired it to be throughout the entire show, the performance of “It All Fades Away” is absolutely marvelous. “Another Life,” a piece in which Marian (Katie Klaus) sings in an unknown place about what her ex-husband Robert might be doing now, while in this same moment he falls in love with Francesca, is beautiful, especially given how the characters interact in the space, walking to their locations by crossing through the farm house, like ghosts in the room or thoughts projected by the other characters into physical form. Best of all are the amazing orchestrations of this piece, with a haunting cello solo at the opening and close of the show and some fantastic guitar work. Brown describes that, “The piano reflects my energy back at me, neurotic and complicated – I know the instrument so well by now that I sometimes have to wrestle with it to make it surprise me, and I knew that the skittery and dense music that the piano and I traditionally made together wasn’t the right sound for this piece.” I agree with him – the timbre of the guitar perfectly captures the world this story takes place in and the romantic, whirlwind summer romance expressed throughout. It’s no wonder that this show won a Tony for best score. Under the musical direction of Tom Murray and Keith Levenson, the orchestra becomes the heart of the piece, keeping Robert and Francesca’s romance alive even when they must part. And given the photographic elements of the show, the lighting design by Donald Holder is particularly wonderful, dramatically showing sunrises and sunsets and the shifting perspectives of the characters.
I greatly enjoyed this show (despite some distraction audience behavior around me) and, while I did wish for something more – whether it be in emotional engagement or just wanting to know more of the story (why did Francesca never contact Robert again? Why did he never contact her? Why did people seem to like Bud when I disliked his character quite a bit?) – this a wonderful romance to enjoy on a summer evening. Catch it if you can!
The Bridges of Madison County is playing now through June 26th at the Orpheum Theatre. Show and ticket information can be found on Hennepin Theatre Trust’s website.
(All quotes from Jason Robert Brown from his composer’s notes, provided by Hennepin Theatre Trust.)