BWW Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY at Aurora Theatre
The Bridges of Madison County, a 2013 romantic tuner featuring music and lyrics by Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown and a book by Marsha Norman, opened on Broadway in 2014, playing only 137 performances before its closing, and there are reasons for that. The narrative arc is uneven, falling into an irritating habit of concentrating on insignificant peripheral events while leaving the important ones largely unexplored. The musical also suffers from a clumsy, cloying ending that begs to be cut by a good 20 minutes. In the hands of a less capable director, these significant script problems might be deal breakers, but under the direction of Justin Anderson, Aurora Theatre's Associate Artistic Director, the production still manages to be a grand affair.
The musical tells the story of Francesca Johnson (Kristin Markiton), an Italian war bride who has spent 20 years raising a family in a small Iowa town as feelings of loneliness and yearning for her native land have eroded her happiness. As the musical opens, Francesca's husband and children are leaving to show the family's prize steer at the Indiana State Fair. Francesca expects to enjoy the peace and quiet of any empty house, but when Robert Kinkaid (Travis Smith), a photographer from National Geographic, shows up at Francesca's doorstep hoping to get directions to one of the county's historic covered bridges, he ignites in Francesca a passion that she has never felt before.
The cast of Aurora Theatre's production is outstanding. Kristin Markiton is convincing as an Italian, and her expressive soprano is an effective conduit for the longing Francesca feels and begs us to understand. Travis Smith also delivers a solid performance as Robert, and it helps that he's downright hunky in the shirtless scenes that showcase the raw sexual energy that must be realized in any successful mounting of this musical. Valerie Payton's portrayal of Marge, a nosy neighbor with a heart of gold, is also especially worthy of note. Payton's voice is so rich and beautiful that one can almost forget that her songs are really nothing more than fluff that draw us away from the heart of the story.
The other star of Aurora Theatre's production is the gorgeous set by Julie Allardice Ray. The set, which is really not much more complicated than a series of wooden frames made from old screen doors and window casings that cleverly expose the sunsets, sunrises, and starry skies of Iowa, is a powerful metaphor for Francesca's longing. The smaller frames spin around the stage, creating a strong sense of place without bogging us down in the details of the bridge and the interior and exterior spaces of the family farmhouse and beautifully showcasing Francesca's internal struggle as her life is thrown into orbit by her encounter with Robert. The largest frame, shaped like a huge farmhouse, is immovable and omnipresent, always serving as a reminder that Francesca has built a life with her husband and children that will not be easy to cast off.
Though it's unlikely that this musical will ever witness a Broadway revival, at least not without significant revisions, Aurora Theatre makes the most of this outing that serves as the Southeastern regional premiere. In the end, the production has just enough power to leave us as satisfied as a stolen kiss under a big starry Iowan sky.