Theater Review: THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (U.S. National Tour)

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by Tony Frankel on December 11, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

HOW DO YOU LIKE YOUR BRIDGES?

Given Marsha Norman’s awkward and dispiriting adaptations for The Secret Garden (1991) and The Color Purple (2005), the most surprising, but not the best, element of the musicalized version of The Bridges of Madison County is her libretto. Neither is Jason Robert Brown’s score the greatest thing on stage at the Ahmanson Theatre, where this short-lived Broadway outing is at the onset of its national tour. Front and center are the extraordinary performances and Bartlett Sher’s spare but effective direction. For a show that should have been served up as a chamber musical (don’t worry, it surely one day will be reworked as just that), the old-fashioned love story nonetheless captures the heart.

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Given its syrupy and soaring sentimentalism, Robert James Waller’s very short 1992 novel of the same name was amazingly effective. I remember thinking how slight the hokum material was while reading it, but then sobbed after finishing it. The tale of “love-that-could-have-been” had a universality which resonated with readers big time: It’s one of the best-selling books of the 20th century: over 50 million copies sold. This Bridges works better than the disappointing Clint Eastwood / Meryl Streep movie version because Ms. Norman eschewed the memory play aspect.

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The story concerns Francesca, an Italian housewife who escaped the ravages of World War II by marrying an American soldier who took her back to his Iowan farm. When her husband and two teenage children leave on a 4-day trip to a state fair steer contest, in comes Robert, a hunky National Geographic photographer who is visiting to create a pictorial essay on Madison County’s covered bridges. Loneliness for the pair leads to compassion, romance, and true love. Yearning for more, Francesca will ultimately have to decide if she will join Robert or obligatorily stay with the mundane life she knows.

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The rapturous Elizabeth Stanley captures the longing of Francesca, and Andrew Samonsky is appropriately sensitive and beefcake. Aided by Mr. Brown’s lush, towering, beautifully orchestrated music, expect to be treated to some of the best pipes on tour (it is a little difficult discerning Ms. Stanley’s dialect when she sings–a similar issue with original Francesca, Kelli O’Hara). I’m not a huge fan of the lyrics: they are too often on-the-nose and skirt the universality needed to really pull at our heartstrings. Along with the near-operatic monumental music for the adulterers, Mr. Brown, who is vigorously conducting the tour himself, adds introspective tunes and a honky-tonk used cleverly by a prying neighbor, but the songs don’t always seem to belong in the same musical.

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I suspect viewer opinions will go all over the map: Some may get lost in the richly romantic veneer, while others may need more to propel the story. Some will love the film score aspect of the music, and some will miss the hooks of songs such as those in Brown’s best show, Parade. Some will find the Broadway beauty conflicting with the Iowan simplicity. Some will like that Sher trusts the story enough to keep the action fairly slow-moving, but others will get itchy to leave the prairie. I happen to be all of the above.

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photos by Matthew Murphy

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The Bridges of Madison County
seen at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles
national tour continues through July, 2016
for cities and dates, visit Bridges Musical

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