Review: A Theatrical Feast: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY at Signature Theatre

The production runs through September 17.

By: Aug. 19, 2023
Review: A Theatrical Feast: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY at Signature Theatre
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Given the moat of terrible traffic that separates Baltimore theatergoers from Arlington, no matter the route, what can justify a visit there? Well, one answer for sure is Signature Theatre’s stunning production of the 2014 musical The Bridges of Madison County (book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown). With a timeless story, a lush, varied score, and riveting performances, Bridges absolutely repays the drive.

What with the ubiquity of the 1992 source novel, by Robert James Waller, which sold 60 million copies, and the 1995 movie adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, which snagged one Oscar and many awards nominations, the story is widely known, and I may drop a spoiler here or there in this discussion, because I don’t think there’s much potential surprise to spoil. Though detractors have called Bridges schmaltzy in all three incarnations, to me, at least, this incarnation is just about perfect, plot included. It is the account of a four-day affair, with wide views of the lives that led up from it and away from it, between an Italian-born World War II war bride, Francesca Johnson (Erin Davie) and a roving National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid (Mark Evans), set against the background of the Iowa farm community Francesca and her husband Bud (Cullen R. Titmas) inhabit.

The family and the community constitute the life Francesca has created for herself over 18 years (“To Build a Home”). In August 1965, Francesca and Bud have two late adolescent children who still need parenting to make the final push into adulthood, and have a solid if unexciting marriage. Bud may be a bit stolid and Iowa a bit dull compared to the liveliness of Francesca’s native Naples, but The Johnsons are doing well enough. And the community members, any narrowness of views notwithstanding, make a point of looking after each other (“You’re Never Alone”). Her closest neighbor and friend Marge (Rayanne Gonzales) watches her closely, refuses to blame her when she gets out of line romantically, and helps out with the unexpected gift of a home-cooked meal to cover up an awkward moment. Still, Francesca’s daughter Carolyn (Julia Wheeler Lennon) can see that if Francesca had stayed in Italy “you could be happy,” an observation which presupposes that in Iowa she isn’t, not quite. Which is still different from saying Francesca is miserable. Rather, she occupies an in-between state in which she turns out to be vulnerable to the gaze of a handsome, engaging stranger.

Robert, that stranger, is on assignment from National Geographic, hunting the seven famous covered bridges of Madison County to photograph, and is unable to find one. In a phrase from the novel that is also the name of his first song, he is “Temporarily Lost.” Of course, the phrase is also a metaphor for his status within his own life. He is not just a journeyman (in the most literal sense) photographer; he will also prove to be an artist with an exciting sensibility that clearly turns Francesca on to witness at work (“The World Inside a Frame”). But his artistry only amplifies his discontent. His traveling and his earlier romantic life have left him unsatisfied, as his ex-wife Marian (Marina Pires), who gets her own song (“Another Life”), can attest. But in his own way, he is just as vulnerable to the gaze of an engaging stranger as Francesca was, when he pulls his pickup truck up to the Francesca’s house to ask for directions to the one elusive bridge. And when, fatefully, Francesca’s husband and children are off at the Indiana State Fair.

The resulting sparks and then the flame between them are sweet and intoxicating to watch, and Erin Davie and Mark Evans evince that kindling passion convincingly and appealingly. But we know, from the moment we start taking in that spectacle, that there will be a price to be paid. That is a dramatic constant in narratives of adulterous love from the Morte d’Arthur to Casablanca. The only question here is which price it will be: the shattering of Francesca’s family and her community ties or the loss of the man she has quickly come to love passionately. The necessity of choosing is bitterly unfair, and yet inevitable. This rendering of the story plays the moment of choice both possible ways, but, rewinds one of them backwards, like a movie in reverse, leaving us (and all the characters whose lives are implicated in that choice) only with the other.

All of the iterations of the tale do something of a bring-to-date on the consequences of Francesca’s choice. Jason Robert Brown caps that part of the show, and indeed the show itself, with a shatteringly beautiful song, “Always Better,” which starts with Francesca weighing the possible consequences if she and Robert had never met, or never made love, or if Francesca had chosen otherwise when that moment of choice came. But the song concludes that what did happen, all of the pain that ensued notwithstanding, made for an outcome that was “always better.” I suspect there weren’t many dry eyes in the house after that song.

I think the show works on this level because, as most long-term happily-married folks come to learn, marriage cannot indefinitely be the place one looks to for consuming passion. The power of mature love, when it arrives, is different. And yet we are most of us beset at times by a dream of a life that is always vibrant with the emotions that accompany newfound romance. That contradiction in our natures is exactly what the show pinpoints. We are made to want incompatible things. The ultimate power of this show is that it brings us so squarely and fairly and movingly into feeling that unsolvable dilemma.

And here it is time to take into account Ben Brantley’s important but catty review in the New York Times when the 2014 Broadway production premiered. Brantley posited that Robert in the book was a Christian Grey-style projection of the mysteriously erotic stranger archetype in what he called a Fifty Shades of Vanilla novel. Brantley’s funny to read, and his critique has some justice as applied to the book, but there is only this much truth to that characterization as applied to the musical: yes, Robert is still not fully fleshed-out. But here at least that is a trivial criticism. I defy the creators of any musical to make any character fully fleshed-out; there isn’t time for that. Sketchwork is imperative. I think what Brantley was really trying to get at was that he felt there is something unreal about Robert. I respectfully differ. True, Robert is unusual in a way that makes him attractive, but there are unusual real people, and they sometimes really do inspire the kinds of reactions Robert elicits in Francesca. Nor is Robert’s brand of unusualness either not-found-in-nature or synthetic. We’ve all met (or been) people like him.

I’d agree with Brantley’s view that when Robert and Francesca’s talk about their love, the rhetoric can grow a little grandiose. But give me a break: that still is the way lovers talk and feel. Language has limits that feelings transcend. You have to make allowances.

I wrote above that the score and the performances were equally effective with the tale the show tells to justify battling the roads to take in an evening of theater in Arlington. So let me make good on the rest of my implicit promise, and discuss the score and the performances.

Songsmith Jason Robert Brown is an enfant terrible of the American musical theater with a particular fondness for crafting chamber musicals, for instance the instant classic 1995 song cycle Songs for a New World and the two-hander, The Last Five Years (2001), both of which can be presented in small spaces. Of course he can go to the other extreme (e.g. the recent revival of Parade, just shuttered after a limited Broadway run).  This show lies in the middle of the size spectrum, presented in a theater which can be reconfigured, but can hold about 300 seats. The stage for this production occupies a strip of center of the floor from wall to wall, flanked by arena seating on both sides. Though not technically theater in the round, the space has that kind of intimate feeling. There are only eight members in the cast. And the offstage band (led by William Yanesh), strings except for one keyboard and one percussionist, is small enough for the ear to take in everything. In short, in a piece full of emotion, we are up close and personal with the music. The musical palette is impressively diverse, stretching from bluegrass to operatic turns to ballads to torch song. In short, there seems to be an infinitude of different ways Brown goes after our feelings. And that, of course, is a good thing.

It’s also hard to imagine a more talented cast, starting with the leads. Davie and Evans’s voices are magnificent where they have to be, their acting is outstanding, and even if (pace Brantley) we never see all of Robert’s depths, Evans does a fine job of convincing us that those depths exist. And because of the small cast size (the aforementioned eight performers holding down a show I’ve seen done with a cast of seventeen), doubling is required of everyone except the leads, which necessitates some serious versatility. For instance, the aforementioned Marina Pires not only plays Marian, a folk singer, but also Francesca’s sister Chiara, a Neapolitan sort of Sophia Loren wannabe, and a country music singer, and a New York-accented publishing office employee. Nolan Montgomery is not only Michael, Bud and Francesca’s somewhat gawky teenaged son, but also Paolo, Francesca’s remembered first love who disappeared into the Italian Army in World War II. Et cetera. And just as the spare orchestration heightens the demands on each musician, so, in this show, which frequently requires close choral harmony among the players, they must all be at the top of their form, and they are.

I also greatly admired the set, by Lee Savage, in which there are two-story barn fronts at each side, and a series of coffers lining the walkway that connects them. The coffers can be rotated to become, for instance, front and back seats of cars or church pews, or straightened out to become structural members of a covered bridge, or boxes opened to supply props to the characters. (There’s also a more conventional set-within-a-set, a kitchen that rolls out of one of the barns upon demand.) It’s fun to watch the whole kit of toys operating over the course of the evening.

So yes, brave the traffic and betake yourselves to Arlington! You will not regret it. (And besides, given traffic patterns, it’ll be a shorter and less stressful voyage that awaits you as you motor home, sated with a theatrical feast.)

The Bridges of Madison County, book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, based on a novel by Robert James Waller, directed by Ethan Heard, presented through September 17, in the MAX auditorium of Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206. Tickets $58-$99, at https://www.sigtheatre.org/events/202324/the-bridges-of-madison-county/ or 703-820-9711. Some adult language, sexual situations, drinking.

Production photo credit: Daniel Rader.

Notice of Correction: The review originally identified the state fair as that of Illinois.




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