BWW Review: The Musical Adaptation of THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY Makes Its Australian Debut In Sydney
Wednesday 11th March 2020, 7:30pm, Hayes Theatre
Jason Robert Brown (Music and lyrics) and Marsha Norman's (Book) Musical adaptation of Robert James Walller's American 1992 Best Selling romance novella THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY is bought to the Sydney stage by director Neil Gooding. Considering love, loss, longing in small rural Iowa, this is a story filled with emotions and a touch of humour as 1960's sensibilities are challenged.
The story, which many may know from the 1995 movie, looks back on the four day affair that challenged a mother and wife to consider her place, her purpose and what made her truely happy. The 40-something farmer's wife Francesca Johnson (Kate Maree Hoolihan) hopes for a few days of peace and relaxation while her husband Richard "Bud" Johnson (Anton Berezin) and their teenage children Carolyn (Zoe Ioannou) and Michael (Grady Swithenbank) head to Indianapolis, almost 500 miles away for a farming competition. Her plans are derailed soon after her family leave when the rugged 50-something National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Ian Stenlake) pulls into her driveway to ask for directions to the historic Roseman Covered Bridge which is the final bridge he needs to find for his latest assignment. With a common love of her homeland Naples, a place he had recently visited on another assignment, Italian hospitality morphs into something more as the war bride starts to have feelings for the older traveller who offers to take her away from the mundane world she had resigned herself to but realisations of family obligations, particularly her children, prevent her from following through.Whilst most of the story takes place in the Johnson's farmhouse, scenic designer James Browne frames the work with a representation of the inside of the famous covered bridge that has bought Francesca and Robert together. Open planked walls and the frame of the roof imply the iconic architecture while panels revolve to reveal domestic components, spun into position by the rest of the cast. Browne has taken care to create a home that shows signs that the Johnson's aren't struggling and Francesca is a conscientious house wife with everything in order. Along with elements like the laminated table and rounded fridge, Anna Gardiner's costume design ensures that it is clear that this is set in the 1960's with button down print dresses and and a country simplicity. Phoebe Pilcher's lighting adds depth to somewhat thin story while also reinforcing the importance of light to a photographer even if Stenlake isn't completely convincing as a photojournalist with National Geographic worthy dedication image to quality. Alan Lugger's sound design balances the hidden band, directed by Geoffrey Castles (Musical Director), and the vocals well for a strong full sound while making allowances for some of the weaker vocalists like Stenlake and Berezin who appeared to be suffering vocals fatigue. While the storyline initially seems quite mundane as a housewife contemplating an affair, Kate Maree Hoolihan ensures that the audience is on Francesca's side. Gooding's directorial choice to have Francesca's first introduction in "To Build A Home" presented with a purely American accent thankfully makes way to a more nuanced Italian American accent to anchor the character's heritage and ensure that she isn't seen as yet another cookie cutter character but has depth and intrigue. Hoolihan is not only vocally strong, presenting beautiful renditions of Jason Robert Brown's ballads, but she ensures that her expression of Francesca feels intuitive, connecting emotionally with the character to deliver an honesty and understanding that people can connect with even if we haven't been in the situation of considering walking away from a marriage, most will have something that they have for some reason felt a regret or disappointment that we didn't choose a different path for ourselves. With this storyline that focuses on the events from Francesca's point of view, Gooding has selected a strong cast of women for supporting roles as well. Beth Daly adds a brilliant comic relief as the concerned but nosey neighbour Marge and Zoe Ioannou gives steer rearing daughter Caroline a quiet feminist fierceness desperate to be recognised when her parents are more focused on her wayward brother who doesn't really want to inherit the farm. Katie McKee's turn as Robert's younger ex-wife captures the realisation that her life isn't what she hoped it would be, drawn in to the romance of marrying photographer isn't really as exotic as she may once have thought. Unfortunately the the male cast don't always provide the required support for an already dragging storyline. While Berezin is convincing as the ex-GI returned to the farm, blindly in love with his family but never really noticing that his wife needs more, vocally he sounds stretched. Grady Swithenbank gives son Michael a degree of mystery as the plot line doesn't really flesh out the character beyond expressing that he wants his freedom from his father and the farm. Michael Beckley, as Charlie, Marge's quiet husband delivers some brilliantly dry humour and a voice of reason to counter Marge's meddling. The weakest point sadly comes from the Stenlake who fails to appear to connect to the character on any meaningful level whilst also lacking the vocal strength to really make the role soar. As a photographer, dedicated to his work, the passion when talking about the perfect photo fails to replicate in any way the depth of connection that anyone truely connected to their craft or obsession really exhibits. As a man discovering the love of his life, he doesn't display the expected depth of conviction that should be innate. His expressions are overplayed, particularly for a small space like Hayes Theatre and every move feels forced, as if you can hear Gooding's director's notes ticking over. If you can put aside the other issues, Kate Maree Hoolihan will have you with at least damp eyes as you reconsider the choice you make and whether obligation and social expectation is enough to make you forgo your happiness.
Photos: Grant Leslie