Robert James Waller’s thin 192-page novel, The Bridges of Madison County, was one of the best-selling books of the 20th century, selling over 50 million copies worldwide since it was first published in 1992. Clint Eastwood directed and starred in a 1995 film remembered mostly for another stellar performance by Meryl Streep as Francesca, the Iowa farm wife from Italy who engages in a four-day affair with Robert, a photographer from the National Geographic. In 2014 a short-lived musical version of the story opened on Broadway. The original novel was mostly a thinly veiled male fantasy. The film was basically a two-hander although it did lean more towards the viewpoint of Francesca. The genius of Marsha Norman’s book and Jason Robert Brown’s score for the musical version is the fact that they have given their characters back stories and enriched the present with the characters of Francesca’s family and neighbors in the small town of Winterset, Iowa circa 1965. In her program notes, Norman states that “all musicals are about the conflict between two worlds. In this case, it’s the life of passion versus the life of family and community.” Or as my Plus One said upon leaving the theatre, “It’s nice to see a new musical that is about something; one that has some passion.”
Bridges has plenty of passion, especially in the grand, romantic score by Brown, probably the most melodic, rapturous and passionate Broadway score since Adam Guettel’s for Light in the Piazza in 2005. Hopefully we won’t have to wait 10 more years before another composer fashions such a symphonic rhapsody to love and passion. Brown is in the pit, leading the orchestra in the playing of the score, and the theatre is filled with the lush sounds of tunes ranging from bluegrass to operatic. This is one show you will definitely come out humming the songs as well as singing the praises of the leading players.
Elizabeth Stanley inhabits every fiber of Francesca; her accent is perfect, her mannerisms bespeak both how she was raised in pre-war Italy and the simple, hard-working farm wife and mother she has become. She’s like a caterpillar that comes to life and turns into a beautiful butterfly when showed the attention of the outsider, Robert. Stanley’s lovely soprano soars liltingly on her songs. It’s a performance worthy of a bevy of bravos and a standing ovation.
Andrew Samonsky as Robert, a loner who is uncomfortable around others and prefers life on the road, goes toe to toe with his co-star and they create a dream coupling. Robert’s uneasiness with Francesca’s company, or any kind of attachment, is finely detailed. He too comes to life when exposed to the glow of this lively and loving Italian woman who has dimmed her passionate nature for too long. His voice is both rough and tender, always commanding and he brings real power and yearning to his songs. The two stars throw off sparks of desire and sensuality, of love and completeness in their on stage coupling. They are truly two lost souls who have finally found their other half.
The supporting cast is top quality, vividly etching characters that complement the two leads and help provide the sense of community by filling in the back story. Cullen R. Titmas provides great support as the beleaguered farm dad and loving if-not-so-attentive husband. Mary Callanan gives Marge, a nosy busybody neighbor, a real heart with gentle understanding. Katie Klaus’s brief appearance as Robert’s ex-wife results in a touching rendition of love-not-meant-to-be in “Another Life.”
Tyne Rafaeli has recreated Bartless Sher’s original direction for the tour and the show has an easy flowing cinematic feel to it. Most of that is due to Michael Yeargan’s scenic design which creates many locations very simply. Donald Holder’s painterly lighting casts a warm glow over the proceedings. The Bridges of Madison County deserved a longer fun on Broadway and more awards recognition. Hopefully this tour will bring it to a much bigger audience and the show will have a lasting future in regional theatres. It’s one of the few shows I feel compelled to see again right away. I and you have until January 17.
Ahmanson Theatre, Music Center in Los Angeles. Ends Jan. 17. www.centertheatregroup.org or 213-972-4400.