Review: ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ at The Kennedy Center

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The Bridges of Madison County is a romantic, sexy, and unapologetically sentimental musical. Most likely you know The Bridges of Madison County from either Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel and/or the 1995 film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Waller’s novel reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed on the list for over 3 years; the Eastwood-directed movie ranked #2 in its opening weekend and grossed $182 million worldwide. Clearly, there are lots of folks who feel wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve is an attractive accessory.

Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca) and Andrew Samonsky (Robert). Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca) and Andrew Samonsky (Robert). Photo by Matthew Murphy.

For this musical incarnation, a breathtakingly beautiful score by Jason Robert Brown (garnering Tony Awards for both score and orchestrations) elevates the story’s emotional impact to soaring heights, especially with lead vocals by Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky as Francesca Johnson (Italian war-bride now an Iowa housewife) and Robert Kincaid (intrepid National Geographic photographer and self-proclaimed loner), respectively.

The star-crossed lovers meet on a fateful day when Robert drives up to Francesca’s farmhouse to ask for directions to one of Madison County’s elusive covered bridges. Earlier in the day, her husband Bud and their two teenaged children, Michael and Carolyn, departed for the State Fair in hopes that Carolyn would capture a national prize. Francesca and Robert fall deeply, madly, truly in love, but Francesca also loves her husband and children.

The book for the musical, written by Marsha Norman — a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who also contributed the book for the musicals The Secret Garden (Tony Award) and The Color Purple) – reveals in every-day encounters how embedded Francesca is in her loving, though sometimes argumentative, family as well as within a strong farm community where neighbors know each other’s business but, more importantly, have each other’s back.

The story unfolds through Jason Robert Brown’s songs. Brown serves as composer, lyricist, orchestrator and (for the first few performances at the Kennedy Center) conductor. With Songs For a New World, Parade, The Last Five Years, 13, and now Bridges), he’s unquestionably established himself as one of the leading lights of American musical theatre. His reflective songs, e.g., “To Build a Dream” and “Almost Real” for Francesca and “Temporarily Lost” and “It All Fades Away” for Robert, are integral to understanding the innermost depths of these characters. The romantic duets, “Wondering,” “Falling Into You,” “Before and After You/One Second & A Million Miles,” are among the finest, most deeply moving love songs ever. Ever.

Along with Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky, there is not a weak link in this cast. Cullen R. Titmus (Bud) anchors the story firmly to the land, both Iowa and his family homestead. His first act songs, “Home Before You Know It,” “You’re Never Alone,” and “Something From a Dream,” are key to understanding this hardworking family man and his community.

Caitlin Houlahan (daughter Carolyn) and Brian Welnicki (son Michael) are by turns pouty, funny, contrary, and affectionate – typical teenagers. Mary Callanan and David Hess (as neighbors Marge and Charlie) are audience favorites who provide much comic relief (think Fred and Ethel Mertz), contribute some great musical moments, and add an important dimension to understanding Francesca’s experience of Iowa life. As Robert and Francesca share their life experiences with each other, their stories often come to life on stage. One notable instance of this is Robert’s ex-wife Marian (Katie Klaus, who also doubles in other scenes as Francesca’s sister and a State Fair singer). Marian is a waitress and aspiring singer whose folk-style song recounts her tenuous relationship with Robert.

Dave Thomas Brown, Tom Treadwell, Cole Burden, Cullen R. Titmas, Elizabeth Stanley, David Hess, Mary Callanan, Caitlin Houlahan, and Matt Stokes. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Dave Thomas Brown, Tom Treadwell, Cole Burden, Cullen R. Titmas, Elizabeth Stanley, David Hess, Mary Callanan, Caitlin Houlahan, and Matt Stokes. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The Broadway production was directed by Tony® Award winner Bartlett Sher and is recreated for the touring production by Tyne Rafaeli with movement by Danny Mefford. For a show with little dancing, Rafaeli and Mefford had the daunting task of blocking a show that moves from scene to scene with cinematic fluidity. Quick transitions are made possible by Michael Yeargan’s elegant scenic design which captures the essence of different locals by selecting key elements to represent the spaces: set pieces that can glide in from the wings or unobtrusively be moved in and out by cast members. Complementing Yeargan, his set is bathed in the gorgeous lighting design by Donald Holder. Both Yeargan and Holder are two-time Tony Award winners.

Capsule review: Not a dry eye in the house.

Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

The Bridges of Madison County plays through July 17, 2016 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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