BWW Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, Menier Chocolate Factory
While the beginning of a heatwave raged outside the Menier Chocolate Factory, attendees of the UK premiere production of The Bridges of Madison County, directed by Trevor Nunn, were transported to a hot summer of a different kind in Iowa in the 1960s.
In a remote part of the Midwest, Italian housewife Francesca (Jenna Russell) is home alone for a few days while her husband and two children attend a county fair.
Little does she know, in those few days her world will be turned upside down by a chance encounter with a travelling photographer, Robert (Edward Baker-Duly).
The musical, based loosely on the 1992 novel and 1995 film, ran on Broadway at the Gerard Schoenfeld Theatre between February and May 2014. Despite its short run, it won two of its four Tony nominations for Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations for Jason Robert Brown's music and lyrics.
Russell gives a highly emotive performance as unassuming Francesca, taken up in the whirlwind of romance happening around her, and beautifully portrays the agony of the crossroad she faces when life begins to return to reality.
Baker-Duly is suitably unkempt and withdrawn as the perpetually travelling photographer, who grows into a passionate and present lover, yet he's a tad unconvincing as a shakier older version of Robert towards the end of the show.
Maddison Bulleyment and David Perkins give strong performances as Bud and Francesca's two strong-willed children, Carolyn and Michael respectively.
The set seamlessly moves from wide-open fields to a (slightly overcrowded) interior of a farmhouse through the use of two turntables and video projections. Tal Rosner's video design has particular immersive effect at the site of one of the titular bridges of the region and also bathes the lovers and audience under a gorgeous sea of stars.
Jon Bausor's set and costume design give the essence of a timeless rural US, with plenty of plaid shirts and cowboy boots in tow. Tim Lutkin's subtle lighting design brings additional warmth to the action on stage.
Bookended by a mournful cello solo, the score has a definite "JRB sound" with a blend of soaring melodies and intriguing grooves, played ably by a 10-piece band led by musical director Tom Murray. Violinist Deborah White notably takes centre stage on fiddle at the top of Act II to kick off a rousing rendition of "State Road 21".
Unfortunately, Russell and Baker-Duly, on occasion, struggle with Brown's demanding folk-cum-opera-cum-blues score. Those familiar with the music sung by Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale on the Broadway cast recording and by others out of context in concert may be disappointed by this relatively reserved take on the songs.
The majority of the narrative, with a book by Marsha Norman, dwells in the few days the pair spent together. It abruptly changes pace later on in the second act, with a series of marriages and graduations. This could have been omitted to make way for the poignant final sequence and would have made the show a slightly more satisfying length.
While there's a potential tension in whether we should glorify stories about infidelity, this show draws the crowd into some very intimate and powerful moments between Francesca and Robert as they explore what it means to act on one's instincts and ponder on a life not fully lived.
Check out our interview with Jenna Russell about playing Francesca
Photo credit: Johan Persson