The Bridges of Madison County

May 11, 2017

in Musicals, Plays

Musical (2014)

Book by Marsha Norman
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Based on the novel by Robert James Waller

Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara
Musical Direction by Matthew Stern
Speakeasy Stage Company
Boston Center for the Arts
May 6 – June 3, 2017

With Jennifer Ellis (Francesca), Christiaan Smith (Robert), Christopher Chew (Bud), Kerry A. Dowling (Marge), Will McGarrahn (Charlie), Katie Elinoff (Carolyn), Nick Siccone (Michael), Alessandra Valea (Marian/Chiara)

Jennifer Ellis as Francesca, Christiaan Smith as Robert in 'The Bridges of Madison County'

Jennifer Ellis as Francesca
Christiaan Smith as Robert
in “The Bridges of Madison County”
Photo: Glenn Perry Photography
Courtesy of Speakeasy Stage Company

A lovely rendition of the musical based on the novel and film about an Italian-born farmer’s wife in Iowa who has a passionate and life-changing affair with a traveling photographic journalist.

Born in Naples, Italy, Francesca (Jennifer Ellis) is married to Bud (Christopher Chew), a soldier she met there at the end of the Second World War. Now, in the mid-1960s, together for eighteen years, they live in Iowa with their two teenage children on a farm. Bud goes off to a state fair with the children for a few days and Francesca falls in with Robert (Christiaan Smith), a photographer for National Geographic who is in town to capture the eponymous bridges of Madison County. A passionate four-day affair ensues and Francesca’ belief in her way of life gets challenged.

This production really rises to the occasion – singing is great, acting is very good – and the show is enjoyable overall. In addition to the leads, played and sung beautifully by Jennifer Ellis as Francesca and Christiaan Smith as Robert, a fairly sizable cast of supporting actors weighs in successfully.

Christopher Chew does a fine job as Bud and Will McGarrahan provides great support as next door neighbor Charlie. Kerry A. Dowling as Marge, Charlie’s wife and Francesca’s friend, provides robustly funny assistance as well.

As the son and daughter, Nick Siccone (Michael) and Katie Elinoff (Carolyn) are also right out there – fun, spunky and full of self-possession.

The book provides a charming love story but does so on a somewhat uncertain basis. The portrayal of a delicately subtle romance occurs in relief against the constant reminder of a hoe-down mentality that pervades the surrounding culture. Effectively, this is a romance of outsiders – the Italian born Francesca and the traveling photographer from Seattle. Emphasis on that outsider status, and the accentuation of the pure romantic love theme, both override the standard value of marital fidelity to create its particular drama.

Apparently, Marsha Norman, the acclaimed playwright who wrote the book for this musical, approached Jason Robert Brown to write the lyrics and music but he was less than thrilled with the prospect since he found the book’s narrative and tone wanting in many ways. However, the sheer public success of the book made an overwhelming case for him to take a crack at it and, as a result, he wrote a libretto and score that was a source of considerable satisfaction to him.

Francesca’s four-day affair with Robert certainly seems passionate, but one has a certain difficulty getting on board with Francesca’s acting out of her marriage and outright deception towards her husband. The original book and the film do a somewhat more convincing job of demonstrating Francesca’s position, but the whole setup is not all that convincing. In the film, Meryl Streep has rule over Francesca’s character, which goes a long way to making a case for it. The book of the musical seems to emphasize the sympathetic aspects of the farmer husband to the extent that it begins to undermine any justification for the romance.

In any event, despite the underlying weaknesses of this narrative, this production is really excellent. The orchestra under Music Director Matthew Stern does a fine job of managing an eclectic and sometimes challenging score. The staging is engaging, bringing on multiple members of the cast into different regions of the stage to convey the complexity of the entire story at once, and to create rousing full cast numbers.

Jennifer Ellis, in addition to having a sympathetic presence and a lovely voice, executes a convincing Italian accent. Chritiaan Smith as Robert also has a very good voice, and has a sweetly innocent demeanor to match Ellis’ Francesca, while providing, with her, a reasonable sense of the mutual passion while seeming sensitive enough to give a requisite nod to decency.

The show is fairly long, but is engaging, entertaining and appealing, making the time go quickly.

– BADMan

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: