Based on the novel by Robert James Waller, The Bridges of Madison County finds Francesca, a World War Two war bride from Italy, living on a farm in Winterset, Iowa in 1965 with a husband and two children. Feeling lost and disillusioned, Francesca’s world is turned upside down when Robert, a National Geographic photographer, shows up in her driveway asking for directions. In the four days that follow, this chance meeting blossoms into a deep, ground-shaking love that leaves Robert, Francesca, and her family forever changed. The Keegan Theatre’s production of this swirling musical with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and book by Marsha Norman is an aching exploration of the lives we lead, the loves we chose, and the bridges we cross.
Leading the way as Francesca was the powerhouse Susan Derry. Despite her petite stance and muted Italian energy dulled by years of farmhouse monotony, what awoke within her over the course of the musical was truly wonderful. Her warm, rich soprano and subtle but charmingly clumsy English instantly rooted you in the quiet life that was making her so very unhappy. Even after years of trying as lamented in “To Build a Home,” it isn’t until she meets a stranger that the doors of her heart are flung open in “What Do You Call a Man Like That?” By Act One’s closing number “Falling Into You,” you could feel how desperately Francesca needed the connection she found with Robert. But for me, it was “Almost Real” in Act Two that had me pinching myself at the sheer force of will and sadness cascading from her memories.
A wonderfully resonate baritone, Dan Felton as Robert was more than a match for the immensely complex vocal part written for the character by Jason Robert Brown. Felton’s Robert was used to a life of solitude spent behind the lens of a camera. His connection with Francesca was unexplainable but unavoidable as life brought the two together. Highlights of Felton’s performance were undoubtedly “Get Closer” and the spine-chilling “It All Fades Away,” where his impressive command of both the stage and voice froze me in my seat.
While his singing was exemplary, I unfortunately found that the chemistry between the two didn’t work for me. Instead of coming across as instantly trustworthy, I found Felton’s portrayal to be more forced and calculated rather than mysteriously charming. This was not helped by a few moments of harsher overhead lighting that cast uneasy shadows over Felton’s features and highlighted the romantic lead in a less than flattering light. To be sure, Felton is incredibly talented, but the combination of ominous shadows and lack of chemistry made it difficult to suspend disbelief that this was a life-changingly deep connection for both characters even when their two voices wove together beautifully.
The other man in Francesca’s life, her husband Bud, played by Chad Wheeler, had a different connection. As recounted in “Something From a Dream,” Wheeler’s smooth tenor unlocked his heart to reveal an infatuation with his wife that began from the first moment he saw her. For Bud, that initial love still lingers today though buried by responsibility, their cooling relationship, and long lost dreams.
But it was her two children Carolyn and Michael, played by Lily Warner and Carson Collins, who tugged at Francesca’s heart stronger than either man. Warner played into the feisty, combative mentality of an adolescent girl while Collins, in particular, was able to deliver with palpable sincerity the flawed fight between boy and man happening within 16-year-old Michael. Through phone calls and parenting spats, bartender conversations and cattle showings, this friction-prone trio was delightfully honest and authentic in their depiction of family. In “Home Before You Know It” and “State Road 21/The Real World” all three pushed against and eventually learned to cope with the life they’d been given.
A life that would not be complete without help from a few nosy neighbors (Marge and Charlie, played by Kathy Fuller and Paul Tonden) and lingering memories of relationships gone by (Chiara and Marian, both played by the sultry but sweet MaryKate Brouillet, and Paolo, played by Rj Pavel). For the supporting cast, “You’re Never Alone” and “When I’m Gone” were excellently executed opportunities for each ensemble member (MK Sagastume, Abby Middleton, Chris Gillespie) to have dozens of quiet, indelible moments that helped make this town all the more real.
Overall this production of The Bridges of Madison County was a testament to the quality and artistic mission at the Keegan Theatre. Direction and choreography by Kurt Boehm and Assistant Director Megan Thrift was wonderfully balanced and used every inch of the theater to produce a world far larger than its 4 walls. Music direction by Elisa Rosman tackled the challenging mixture of folk, pop, and opera in Jason Robert Brown’s work and coached the many layers of story out of each lyric and Tony Award-winning note (Bridges won two Tony Awards in 2014, one for Best Original Score and one for Best Orchestration).
But perhaps the most stunning element of the aesthetic was set design by Matthew J. Keenan paired with properties and set dressing design by Cindy Landrum Jacobs. There are few words I can come up with that describe the stunningly detailed, rich, and deep world that they were able to create with their weathered and cut-out farm home. Highlighted by the particularly dynamic Projection Designer Patrick Lord and the subtle Sound Designer and Engineer Dan Deiter, the fields of city Iowa, coast of Napoli, and, yes, bridges of Madison County, leapt to life before our eyes.
I really admire the theatrical work coming out of the Keegan Theatre over the past season and The Bridges of Madison County continues that trend. With go big or go home gusto, this production tackles a daunting score and story with unmistakable style; proving that the road of life may not always bring you what you want, but it will always at the very least lead you to a bridge with glimpses of the ripples below.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
The Bridges of Madison County plays through September 2nd, 2018, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.