BWW Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY at Omaha Community Playhouse is Worth a Second Look
Sometimes a story leaves you disappointed. Or disillusioned. So you take a second look. You read the novella. You watch the film. You return to the Omaha Community Playhouse for another performance of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY. And you see it with fresh eyes and a new perspective.
Robert James Waller's 1992 bestseller was met with criticism ranging from "a passionate sublime love story that involves sacrifice..." to "cringingly awful." Why the disparity? Much of the contention revolved around the adulterous affair between Francesca Johnson, an Italian war bride confined to the flat farm land of Iowa for the past 18 years, and Robert Kinkaid, a traveling National Geographic photographer who is looking for Roseman Bridge. But what if we looked beyond the adulterous affair and we considered the longing of two people who were searching for something they finally found? What if we don't look at the objects that are before us and we look at the light instead?
The OCP production goes beyond Waller's saccharine tale. A scruffy photographer drives up in his blue pickup just after Francesca's family leaves for the Iowa State Fair. He, Robert, and she fall madly into lifelong love within the four short days that they have together. Although we know that this is an implausible plot, it becomes a vehicle for expressing universal feelings of invisibility and the need to be seen, loneliness, and desire for reciprocated passionate love.
The two lead couples appearing at alternating performances introduce different perspectives. Angela Jenson Frey with Thomas Gjere, and Mackenzie Dehmer with James Verderamo give us two independent looks at a love story. Perhaps Frey and Gjere give us a more realistic view of the lovers...'this is the story and how it happened'... while Dehmer and Verderamo give us an inward view...'this is the story and why it happened.' Both couples are truly exceptional! But because the latter two are fresher in my memory, I will focus on them.
Dehmer (Francesca) and Verderamo (Robert) radiate undeniable chemistry. They constantly touch each other with small caresses. She peeks over her notebook at him; they gaze at each other unabashedly. They are playful with small gestures that add comic relief. On the other hand, her responses to her husband, Bud (Mike Palmreuter), get more clipped with each phone call. Her message to him is "love you" versus "I love you." There is a difference.
Palmreuter excels as the tediously reliable husband. He tries. He has his own longings. He knows his wife thinks of him as someone who keeps the lights turned on, but he doesn't want his wife to work. He longs to take Frannie on vacation, but it's "not like they'll have the money." He shows pained confusion when she cuts their calls short, and he knows something's different when he returns home. It's almost as if he is holding his breath, hoping that life will settle down like the dust settling on the fields of Iowa.
The backdrop of fields with a broken down windmill entwined with vines adroitly expresses the dullness of Iowa farm life. The windmill has served its purpose and stands there unattended. Light shifts from dawn to dusk. The spinning staircase at the beginning of the show transports Francesca through the years. Set pieces are moved in and out by cast members in a smoothly timed sequence. Physical pieces such as the kitchen are paired with the barest suggestions of a roofline or a truck. Jim Othuse (scenic designer) and Aja Jackson (lighting) work together to present the most with the least.
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY received the Tony Award for Best Orchestration and Best Original Score in 2014. It requires an excellent orchestra to handle Jason Robert Brown's compositions. Jim Boggess leads an impressive group of accomplished musicians who more than succeed. The tinkling of piano keys and keyboard, the chilling thrill of the violin, the picking of guitar strings, the beat of percussion all transport us, whether it's in the classical numbers sung by Dehmer and Verderamo, country in "State Road 21," gospel in "When I'm Gone," or folk in "Another Life." At times, even the hair on my head responded to the beauty of the orchestra.
Jason Robert Brown is a master of melody and lyrics. Singers must have tremendous range, emotion, and the ability to enunciate clearly and quickly. Both Dehmer and Verderamo have it all. Every word is clear. Every note on pitch. Their vocal training (Dehmer at the conservatory at University of Missouri, Kansas City and Verderamo with vocal coach Anne Marie Kenney) has paid off because they have total control. Their sound is rounded, resonant, and full, even on the impossibly high notes. There are moments where Verderamo sings acapella, which is insanely challenging in Brown's music.
Brown's storytelling lyrics supplement Marsha Norman's (book) expert revelation of her characters' inner thoughts. Remarks like, "I've started to wonder if I've wasted my life here," spoken by Francesca are overt. But when Robert sees the world through the small window of his camera lens, it becomes a metaphor for focusing on Francesca as his world, while neighbor Marge sees a bigger world through binoculars from her own window. Bud tells Francesca they took bets on what she would have waiting for them, while Francesca bets that Bud would not wait at the gas station to accommodate their daughter. Daughter Carolyn (Julianna Cooper) and her brother Michael (Matthew Tolliver) exist almost as incidental to the love triangle; yet they show well how Francesca is taken for granted by those she loves.
Seemingly also extraneous to the story, ex-wife Marian (Analisa Peyton) appears while Robert and Francesca sit in the kitchen, softened by subtle lighting. Robert mentions his ex played the guitar that he drags around the country without any credible reason. Francesca suggests the guitar is a reminder of Marian. Perhaps Marian leaving Robert justifies him reaching out for another life. "There was something deep inside him, something I could never reach," Marian sings. Perhaps it was merely an excuse for Jason Robert Brown to pen another lovely song which is delivered beautifully by Peyton.
Norman incorporates a nosy but caring neighbor, Marge (Joey Hartshorn), to depict small town life where people are, "either working, or looking out the window." She is looking to satisfy her own longing through her voyeurism, while at the same time probing the depth of her husband Charlie's (Kevin Olsen) feelings for her. Hartshorn carries out the role of Marge so well. She's funny. She's a strong singer herself. And she's likable, as is the easygoing Olsen. Together they are a fine pair of Iowans "who have their faults, but one of them is not lack of caring."
There is no lack of caring put into the development of this production by director Kimberly Faith Hickman assisted by Joey Galda. She took what could have been a superficial romance and transformed it into something beautiful. See both lead couples. BRIDGES is worthy of a second look.