The Bridges of Madison County turns out to be an ideal musical for an ambitious youth theater looking to build bridges to a wider audience of grown-up fans. A sensitive, artfully realized production of the work marks a whole new chapter in the life of the Red Branch Theatre Company.
The 2014 Broadway show, adapted from Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel by the playwright Marsha Norman, also boasts perhaps Jason Robert Brown’s finest score.
But don’t go here expecting a casual night of frisky show tunes. The largely sung-through show is a deeply emotional love story belonging firmly to the post-Sondheim era.
Brown’s melodies, in this case, suit the story’s milieu of stoic Iowa farmers who rarely say what they feel. As everyday life presses in on them, those unexpressed feelings climb lyrically up Brown’s latticework of composition like delicate tendrils reaching toward the light.
Red Branch has a long association with composer Jason Robert Brown, who paid a personal visit to the suburban playhouse in 2014 as part of a cabaret fundraiser. Later it staged Brown’s 2002 work, The Last Five Years. When the rights to The Bridges of Madison County became available, Red Branch lined up an impressive crew of fresh creative talent.
Overseeing the production is D.C.-based Director Clare Shaffer, with first-rate musical support from Conductor Paige Rammelkamp and a five-piece ensemble made up of cello, keyboard and percussion. On opening night, the audience was clearly taken with the performances of the two adult leads, also making their Red Branch debut.
Erin Granfield brings a lovely trained soprano to the vocally demanding role of Francesca. From her opening memories as an Italian war bride in “To Build a Home” through her complex relationships to family and her adopted American community, Granfield never makes a single dramatic misstep.
When taciturn husband Bud leaves with their two children for a state fair, Francesca opens the door on a roving photographer from National Geographic and — symbolically — on the world she left behind as a young woman (“Almost Real”).
Ryan Burke plays the cameraman, Robert Kincaid, as a slightly weary workingman on professional assignment. By training, he sees through the vanities of the world and instantly spots something in Francesca worth treasuring. Burke brings some of the show’s most complex and defined vocal shadings to the riveting solos “Temporarily Lost” and “It All Fades Away.”
Together, Burke and Granfield make the romantic duet between Robert and Francesca, “Falling Into You,” one of the most touchingly heartfelt musical moments of this theatrical year.
Chad Wheeler, as husband Bud, uses his very expressive eyes to suggest the layers of nuance in the man’s strength, faith and periods of doubt. Wheeler commands a strong singing voice, as well, especially in “Something From a Dream” and the stirring gospel anthem “When I’m Gone.”
The roles of the neighboring farm couple, Charlie and Marge, contribute powerhouse support to the drama in this staging, thanks to Bryan Lyons-Burke and Gillian Shelly Lawler. Both achieve unexpected moments of star presence with their solos “When I’m Gone” and “Get Closer,” respectively.
Red Branch favorite Victoria Meyers infuses daughter Carolyn with her amusing brand of pint-sized spunk, while newcomer Carson Collins gets the snotty adolescence of son Michael just right.
Providing the icing on a distinguished casting cake is Chani Wereley performing a variety of roles. At one point she holds the audience spellbound center stage with just her guitar and multi-faceted vocal stylings (“Another Life”).
Director Shaffer, with the active help of Choreographer Kathy Gordon, keeps the ensemble shifting through pretty stage pictures all evening on Scenic Designer Jacob Cordell’s skewed picture-frame set.
The sliding curtain makes a noisy distraction at times, and some of the pauses between scenes could be hurried a bit. Overall, though, with material this affecting it sometimes comes as a blessed relief to just sit there digesting what you’ve seen and heard.
Running Time: About two hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.
The Bridges of Madison County plays through October 14, 2017 at Red Branch Theatre Company performing at the Drama Learning Center – 9130-I Red Branch Road, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 997-9352, or purchase them online.