BWW Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY: Love or Marriage?

BWW Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY: Love or Marriage?

The Bridges of Madison County

Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, Based on the Novel by Robert James Waller, Orchestrations by Jason Robert Brown, Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, Music Direction by Matthew Stern, Choreography by Misha Shields; Scenic Design, Cameron Anderson; Costume Design, Mark Nagle; Lighting Design, Annie Weigand; Sound Design, David Reiffel; Projection Design, Garrett Herzig; Dialect Coach, Amelia Broome; Production Stage Manager, L. Arkansas Light; Assistant Stage Manager, Dominique D. Burford

CAST (in alphabetical order): Peter S. Adams, Rachel Belleman, Christopher Chew, Kerry A. Dowling, Katie Elinoff, Jennifer Ellis, Will McGarrahan, Ellen Peterson, Nick Siccone, Edward Simon, Christiaan Smith, Alessandra Valea

Performances through June 3 at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com

Marsha Norman (Book) and Jason Robert Brown (Music and Lyrics) adapted Robert James Waller's novel The Bridges of Madison County for their lush musical by expanding it to include a real town and a real family. An important change is the shift of emphasis from the character of Robert Kincaid, the loner photographer, to the character of Francesca Johnson, the lonely farm wife. Not only does this revision enrich the story, but it shines the spotlight more directly and consistently on the actor in the role, who, in the SpeakEasy Stage Company Boston premiere, is the luminescent Jennifer Ellis. The Elliot Norton Award and IRNE Award-winning Ellis elevates the production and keeps it afloat, even when the languid pace of the libretto threatens to drag it under.

Fortunately, Ellis does not have to do the job singlehandedly as she is partnered with an outstanding love interest in Christiaan Smith as Kincaid. They are surrounded with stellar cast mates, including Christopher Chew (husband Bud), Kerry A. Dowling (neighbor Marge), and Will McGarrahan (Marge's husband Charlie) as the adults who watch over Francesca. Katie Elinoff (Carolyn), notable in last season's appropriate, and newcomer Nick Ciccone (Michael), who seamlessly transitions from sulky boy to responsible young man, are both realistic as the squabbling Johnson teenagers. Additional ensemble members Peter S. Adams, Rachel Belleman, Ellen Peterson, Edward Simon, and Alessandra Valea (Marian/Chiara) portray townspeople and contribute to the realism in the tableau that establishes an Our Town aesthetic for the story.

Director M. Bevin O'Gara and Music Director Matthew Stern are masters of their respective domains. Although the first act in particular feels elongated, O'Gara keeps her eyes on the road while driving the story forward until it picks up speed on its own as the relationship between Francesca and Robert heats up and eventually comes to a head in act two. Stern plays piano and conducts six musicians who convey the lush beauty oF Brown's Tony Award-winning score that differentiates themes and styles for each of the characters. For instance, the resonant, minor tones of the cello represent Francesca, while Robert's mellow sound comes more from guitar and piano. However, their musical themes evolve, becoming richer and more expansive as the couple opens to each other and their romance flourishes.

Set in the mid-1960s, The Bridges of Madison County pairs the Italian immigrant Francesca, a war bride who has built a solid, if unexciting, life in rural Iowa with her husband Bud and their two children, and the roving photographer Robert, on assignment in the area to shoot covered bridges for "National Geographic." By chance, he shows up at her door seeking directions not long after Bud and the kids have left for three days at the State Fair. Both characters have had a void in their lives and suddenly find the other one filling it. As they tumble into an affair, they don't so much ignore the immorality, the elephant in the room, as they grapple with it as a factor in choosing the outcome.

There was never any doubt that Ellis would sing the role beautifully, but her performance throughout the many moods and changes that Francesca experiences is filled with nuance and moments of raw emotion. She shows her quiet struggle not to be crushed by her dead-end existence, her feeling of being an outsider even within her own family, and her attempts to feign a smile or a passing interest in their quotidian routine. When Francesca starts to notice Robert as a man and he pays attention to her, Ellis' countenance brightens and she blossoms like a flower suddenly thrust into sunlight. However, even at her sunniest, she maintains an underlying ambivalence tinged with pain.

The chemistry between Ellis and Smith is undeniable and he is blessed with a gorgeous voice to match hers. Robert is a quiet man of mystery and Smith holds his emotions under lock and key, until a seedling wriggles out of a crevice, finally erupting into a mighty oak, ready and willing to provide shelter and strength for Francesca. By contrast, Chew's Bud wears his vulnerability on his sleeve, along with a folksy, aw-shucks demeanor. Even as he plays the autocrat in the family, he is a very sympathetic character. Dowling and McGarrahan bring humor, warmth, and steadiness to the salt-of-the-earth neighbors. In flashback sequences, Valea sings a lovely ballad as Robert's ex-wife, and is sassy and provocative as Francesca's older sister.

The Bridges of Madison County was ripe to become a musical as its lyrical, romantic story could be enhanced by the addition of songs, especially the lush, soaring themes composed by Brown. It is not a typical SpeakEasy Stage Company kind of show, but they know how to do right by musicals. Within the intimate confines of the Roberts Studio Theatre, they apply their imprint that allows the audience to feel connected, almost as if we live in that tight-knit Iowa community, too. Waller's book comes alive because we can see the characters as real people, and more importantly, Ellis and Smith make us feel their love.

Photo credit: Glenn Perry Photography (Jennifer Ellis, Christiaan Smith)

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