The beloved novel The Bridges of Madison County was written in 1992 by Robert James Waller, an Iowa college professor. Considered too short to be a novel and met with mixed reviews, it took word of mouth for the book to eventually rise to the bestseller list, where it stayed for 164 weeks. In 1994, Clint Eastwood directed and starred in a film adaptation, which earned an Academy Award nomination for his co-star Meryl Streep.
More than 20 years later, The Bridges of Madison County comes to the Orpheum Theatre as a musical. This iconic story of found love was first told from the perspective of Robert Kincaid, a photographer traveling to Iowa to photograph the historic covered bridges of Madison County. The movie presented the same story from the perspective of Francesca, a woman who left her home and family in Italy to marry an American GI and move to Winterset, Iowa to settle and raise a family. The time is 1965, and Francesca’s husband Bud is traveling to the Iowa State Fair with their two children for four days. During those four days, the lives of Francesca and Robert become entwined and both are changed forever.
The play, written by Marsha Norman, expands on the original book, adding a deeper story line for Francesca’s family and bringing the townspeople of Winterset onstage as well. Music and lyrics were written by Jason Robert Brown.
The challenge with musical productions is that the story needs to be moved forward through both the dialogue of the actors and also the lyrics of the musical numbers. As Robert, Andrew Samonsky brings all of the passion and longing of this story to life with his wonderful voice and delivery. Unfortunately, the soprano voice of Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca), also burdened with an Italian accent, was just not able to meet the demands of her role and I found her difficult to understand. Samonsky and Stanley together gave us the lovely “Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles,” which sums up the unexpected love they found in their midlives. Samonsky left everything on the stage with “It All Fades Away,” and both my sister and I wished they would have ended the show there because it was so powerful.
This raises, for me, the biggest problem with this show. The first act is over an hour long. The opening number “To Build a Home” is low-energy and sets the tone for many of the other songs which may have been necessary to incorporate the expanded cast and story. My expectation was that these additional characters would provide the high-energy production numbers most audience members have come to expect in musicals. Instead, this felt more like an opera to me than a musical. The need to focus on the lyrics of the songs took away from the Tony-winning score. I would have preferred to have the music speak for itself at times, to convey the emotions of the story without the burden of lyrics.
Francesca’s neighbor Marge (Mary Callanan) and her husband Charlie (David Hess) did add a new dimension to the story. Nosy Marge proves to be a true friend as Francesca’s world falls apart and Hess’s rendition of “When I’m Gone” ties together the life transitions of Francesca’s family added to this story. They also provide some much-needed levity during the show.
I was intrigued by the decision to have members of the ensemble sit along the sides of the stage in straight-back chairs during most of the show. They would get up to facilitate set changes, moving pieces of the set around in a well-choreographed dance motion. The set, designed by Michael Yeargan, did its job but the execution of the scene changes was distracting at times.
This production of The Bridges of Madison County certainly portrays the emotions we have all experienced when faced with the hard choices of life. I believe that those who are drawn to this show because of their love of the book or movie will not be disappointed. It is always fulfilling to revisit the magic of a great story.
Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy Hennepin Theatre Trust