By Manning Harris
Aurora Theatre is presenting the musical version of Robert James Waller’s novel “The Bridges of Madison County,” with a book by Marsha Norman; music, lyrics, and orchestration by Jason Robert Brown; directed by Justin Anderson. It will run through April 16.
I’m sure most are aware there was a film version in 1995 starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, directed by him; it garnered Ms. Streep one of her 20 Oscar nominations.
The musical had a short run on Broadway in 2014 (despite winning Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Orchestration), but it featured the luminous Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale in the leading roles, and broke quite a few hearts for those lucky enough to see it (regrettably I did not).
Why did it break hearts? Because “Bridges” is a passionate love story, and Aurora has kindly given us this lovely romance just in time for spring. There’s a line in “Hello, Dolly!” which says, “It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long.” I used to think this line sweet but a bit simplistic; “The Bridges of Madison County” will convince you this axiom is the absolute truth.
In 1965 Francesca Johnson (Kristin Markiton) is an Italian war bride living in the middle of Iowa with her husband Bud (Matt Lewis) and her two teenagers, Michael (Benjamin Davis) and Carolyn (Hannah Church). She is a dutiful, devoted wife and mother. Whenever the phone rings in her house, she answers “Johnson’s”; this seems a small thing, but it’s soon apparent she has no authentic identity of her own. The Naples-born Francesca has settled; whatever she expected life to be when she left Italy 18 years ago, this isn’t it.
One day a photographer named Robert Kincaid (Travis Smith) from “National Geographic” shows up looking for the famous covered bridges of Madison County. Bud has taken Carolyn and Michael to the state fair for three or four days so Carolyn can show her prize steer. Francesca is alone. Robert is a handsome, well-traveled man with the soul of a poet. “What Do You Call a Man Like That?” she sings. Francesca offers him iced tea, shows him where a certain bridge is, and invites him to dinner.
Robert has not only been to Naples; he has taken pictures which are very moving to Francesca as she realizes more and more what she left and where she is now. Need I spell it out? He awakens long-suppressed feelings in her and is fascinated by and attracted to her. The attraction is mutual, and overwhelming.
The two leads, Ms. Markiton and Mr. Smith, are enchanting. She not only nails the Italian accent; she sings like a dream. Mr. Smith, whose work I am more familiar with (“Memphis,” “Big Fish”), also sings superbly and radiates charm, kindness, and charisma. It’s no wonder Francesca is mightily smitten. And she blossoms: She buys a new dress and blooms right before your eyes.
Their big numbers, especially the duet “One Second and a Million Miles,” and her “Almost Real” and his “It All Fades Away” are more like powerfully sung arias. It’s a demanding score, supported beautifully by music director Ann-Carol Pence and eight musicians that somehow sound like a full orchestra.
Now comes somewhat disconcerting news: Anything and everything that detracts from these two characters becomes somewhat extraneous. You’d think the Pulitzer-winning Ms. Norman would have learned from the movie; but of course there’s the need to flesh out a big “Broadway musical.”
This is unfortunate for the very talented cast, who are charming in their own right. Nosy (but kind) neighbor Marge (Valerie Payton) and her husband (Rob Cleveland) are expert comedians and sing very well indeed. Carolyn and Michael (Ms. Church and Mr. Davis) are talented performers who are great fun to watch. Marian (Rhyn McLemore Saver), Robert’s former wife, pops up and sings “Another Life.” Actors Blake Burgess and Jimmica Collins are fine, as is the rest of the cast.
Bud (Mr. Lewis) finally becomes dimly aware that he’s not satisfying Francesca’s emotional needs; she actually has to tell him. He becomes not only a bore but a boor, and you wish he would just go away. Mr. Lewis is just fine; but that’s the way the part is written.
One gets the feeling that director Justin Anderson knows he’s dealing with a flawed script; and, inventive and savvy as usual, he heroically does everything possible to salvage what’s on the page. But the play’s the thing, as the Bard said.
Set designer Julie Allardice Ray creates a towering set in the middle of the Iowa fields, no easy task.
Happily, all we have to do is focus on Francesca (especially) and Robert. They show you that love may not conquer all, but it can surely sweeten life and make it worth living.
For tickets and information, visit auroratheatre.com.