The Bridges of Madison County: Musical Adaptation Adds Corn

Reviewed by Jane Baldwin

Photo: Glenn Perry Photography

In 1992, Robert James Waller wrote the romantic best seller, The Bridges of Madison County, the kind of book which is often dismissed as chick lit. Three years later its next iteration appeared as a film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood with Meryl Streep playing opposite him. The film received better reviews than the book. And in 2014, it opened on Broadway as a musical with the book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Although it won two Tony Awards, one for the best original score, the other for the best orchestration, it closed after a four month run.

Now available to the regionals, it is presently playing at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company which has particular skill in working with musicals. Jason Robert Brown’s music is varied, moving from operatic songs, to jazz, to bluegrass, to American country music. For this production, SpeakEasy has strong singers, particularly the multi-talented Jennifer Ellis who plays Francesca, the protagonist and baritone Christiaan Smith as Robert who falls in love with her.

As the lights go down, Francesca Johnson enters in semi-darkness followed by Marian/Chiara, two ghost-like characters, played by Alessandra Valea, a dancer who bears a strong resemblance to Ellis. Valea quickly leaves the stage.

Francesca, originally from Naples, opens the show with “To Build a Home” a song about coming to the US as Bud’s (Christopher Chew) war bride after World War II, settling in Iowa on Bud’s farm land and working side by side with her husband to build a home. Bit by bit she is joined on stage by her neighbors doing their chores. The contrast between the beautiful, slender, graceful Francesca and the stereotypically overweight farm folk is disconcerting. When the play begins, it is 1965; Francesca and Bud have been married 18 years and have two children. Seemingly content with her life, she yearns for something different, although the character does not admit it to herself.

Bud and their two children Carolyn (Katie Elinoff) and Michael (Nick Siccone) go to the Indiana State Fair for four days where the daughter is going to show the steer she raised. Francesca, not a fan of state fairs, has chosen to remain at home and relax. Her plans are interrupted when Robert Kincaid a handsome photographer for the National Geographic shows up at her door lost. He is in Madison County to take pictures of the famed covered bridges. Francesca offers to show him where they are and the two set off in what represents his truck, the kitchen table turned around. In “Temporarily Lost,” he sings to her about his lonely life as a travelling photographer. They return to the house and neither is eager to part. She invites him to stay for dinner. He goes out to the garden to pick vegetables and the two drink brandy and eat the soup she made. They exchange confidences. It is not long before they become lovers. Smith, a fine baritone and a handsome man, at times seems more involved in the music than in Francesca. Ellis, an accomplished actress, puts her heart into both her acting and singing.

The neighbors, particularly Francesca’s friend Marge (Kerry A. Dowling), spy on her, binoculars in hand, nervous and disapproving of whatever is going on with Francesca and the “hippie” as they call Robert. Dowling’s performance is both funny and sympathetic. Will McGarrahan is excellent as her dour husband.

There is much in The Bridges of Madison County that is reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s works such as the spectral characters of Marian, Robert’s first wife and Chiara, Francesca’s sister whom she has never seen again since leaving Naples. The differences between the main characters and the rural neighbors who are presented as local yokels have a lot in common with the roles Wilder wrote for Our Town. Even the sparse set with props used for multiple purposes is typical of Wilder’s plays.

Bud phones Francesca from the fair and is taken aback by how different she seems. While he does not understand her, he loves her and dreams of taking her on vacation, something he claims is financially impossible. Bud’s relationship with Francesca is similar to Marian’s marriage to Robert. However, Marian reveals her longing for and frustration with Robert in “Another Life;” Bud reveals his triumphalism in having won Francesca in “Something from a Dream.”

At the end of Act I, despite her passion for Robert, Francesca makes the crucial decision to stay with her husband and children. Another act ensues which ties up all the loose ends.

SpeakEasy’s The Bridges of Madison County continues at the Calderwood Pavilion until June 3.

Director …………………………… M. Bevin O’Gara

Scene Designer …………………… Cameron Anderson

Costume Designer ………………… Mark Nagle

Annie Wiegand ……………………. Lighting Design

Misha Shields ………………………Choreographer

 

Cast

Peter S. Adams ……………………… Ensemble

Rachel Belleman ……………………. State Fair Singer/Radio Singer/Ensemble

Christopher Chew …………………… Bud

Kerry A. Dowling …………………… Marge

Katie Elinoff ………………………… Carolyn

Jennifer Ellis ………………………… Francesca

William McGarrahan ………………… Charlie

Taylor Okey …………………………. Ensemble

Ellen Peterson ……………………….. Radio Singer/Ensemble

Nick Siccone ………………………… Michael

Edward Simon ……………………….. Radio Singer/Ensemble

Christiaane Smith …………………….. Robert

Alessandra Valea ………………………Marian/Chiara


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