BWW Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY at Elmwood Playhouse

BWW Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY at Elmwood Playhouse

"The Bridges of Madison County" was a silly book that was elevated greatly by superb performances in its film incarnation. Jason Robert Brown's musical take on the story isn't quite as successful. However, Elmwood Playhouse's strong cast makes it worth the trip.

The tale of whirlwind romance and intense passion rarely works whenever the two central characters are not on the stage. The cliched "good guy" husband, the cliched "rebellious teenage kids," even the cliched "nosey neighbor" (right down to the binoculars) are all present and accounted for. We immediately like Francesca and Robert, but we also like Bud her clueless "aw shucks" husband, whom she's cheating on.

To its credit, the entire cast is superb and does its best to raise the stakes, and the lovely voices and thoughtful performances of leads Daniele Hager and Jon Huston help hide the weaknesses of the problematic book. The source material, Robert James Waller's melodramatic novel, is the problem. The book sold a gazillion copies, appealing to the repressed fantasies of desperate housewives everywhere - all dreamily waiting for a ruggedly handsome stranger to come and whisk them away from their monotonous existence, but Marsha Norman's book never achieves the same magic.

BWW Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY at Elmwood Playhouse

Claudia Stephany's direction is lighthearted and sweet, bringing out the wistful side of the characters successfully, despite the many hurdles handed her by the plot.

At its core, Brown's score has some wonderfully touching moments and big tuneful songs, but it always feels like it is at odds with itself. Some of the tunes feel like they'd be at home in a honky-tonk in the mid-west, while others feel like they belong in a Sondheim musical - or a "Sondheim-lite" musical, because they all feel a bit "by the numbers". And the contrast between the two can be jarring. There is also an eye-rolling predictability and "sameness" to the structure of the songs - where virtually each one opens into a mini dramatic vignette only to return for the final verse of the song.

In the opening song, "To Build a Home," Francesca retells her life story beginning as a war bride in Naples and ending on the farm in Iowa. Hager's bright and flexible soprano brought a delightful freshness to the long-suffering Francesca. Her eyes and facial expressions deftly conveyed a delicate combination of pride, melancholy, and disappointment.

BWW Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY at Elmwood Playhouse

When her husband, Bud (played with great ernest by Edward Van Sanders), and their teenage children Carolyn (Caroline Goldenberg) and Michael (Jackson Poulin) head out of town to attend the 1965 State Fair, Francesca reflects upon her life - just in time for National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Huston) to wander up her driveway and into her life.

Robert is the quintessential loner, engaging with the world solely through the lens of his camera. But Francesca's accent and honest and frank candor captures his fancy. A glass of iced tea leads to a beer, which leads to dinner, which leads to a hop in the sack. The speed and recklessness of their behavior gives them pause but also opens a new world of possibility for both of them, and for which neither is really prepared.

The literal lyrics of Brown's songs don't help, expressing the overwhelming feelings they have for one another, but always feeling like the characters have not earned it yet. Hager and Huston sing beautifully as they pine for each other in lovely solos as well as in a soaring duet.

BWW Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY at Elmwood Playhouse

Francesca's big number "Almost Real," chronicles the life she imagined as a girl, providing deep insight into her lonely plight, and Ms. Hager delivered an exquisitely nuanced performance of the number, exposing Francesca's repressed sensuality, as well as her despondence and desolation with gentle pathos.

The difficulty remains that while she is rediscovering a lost part of herself, she's cheating on a husband whom the audience feels bad for.

As, Robert, Mr. Huston looked more like a southern California surfer than a grizzled old confirmed bachelor. He's not a traditional seducer but rather a "hippy" who lets his defenses down when he meets his "soulmate". Having no family, he has much less at stake than Francesca, and for "a guy's guy" he gives no thought and has no problem playing the part of home wrecker. Despite a fairly one-note quality to all of Roberts songs, Mr. Huston performs them honestly and with great sensitivity.

The supporting cast is uniformly superb, but Ms. Norman's book dwells on banal family scenes that really don't add much and take away from the central romance without adding the necessary tension.

Francesca's scenes with nosey neighbor Marge (Kerry Davis), a busybody right out of central casting, and Marge's scenes with her grumpy husband (Larry Wilbur) are absolutely charming and quite funny - but again, fairly predictable and extraneous.

BWW Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY at Elmwood Playhouse

Emma Ruck gets a moment to shine in a lovely cameo number called "Another Life," where we see Robert's ex-wife, shown as a sort of coffeehouse singer/free spirit (frankly, upon cursory glance, she seems a lot better suited for Robert than Francesca!)

The ensemble was first rate - especially Wendy Portnoy, channeling her inner Patsy Cline, as a saloon chanteuse. Jenilee Aromondo's sets were simple and successfully evocative and Rebekah Gould's lighting designs captured the isolation of farm life quite well. Music director Tony Bellomy did a great job balancing the more traditional Broadway-style numbers with the more heartland/rural ones, in a manner than minimized and smoothed out the wrinkles in Mr. Brown's score.

In the film, director Eastwood and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, consciously chose to streamline the story and tighten and heighten the focus on the two lovers, with great success. The musical version's opting for a more expansive telling of the story, dilutes that focus, and consequently is remotely as satisfying.

Overall, Elmwood's production of Bridges of Madison County gets high marks on most counts, and the eminently likeable cast delivers an entertaining evening - more melodrama than drama - but certainly enjoyable.

Peter Danish

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