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REVIEW: Creaky Bridges of Madison County (Orpheum Theatre/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca) and Andrew Samonsky (Robert) in the national tour of The Bridges of Madison County.

The national tour of The Bridges of Madison County plays at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis through June 26. This 2014 Broadway musical adaptation of Robert James Waller’s 1992 best-selling novel offers few surprises to its audiences. While Iowa housewife Francesca finds herself torn between settling for the life she chose long ago and running away toward the promise of new romantic adventure, the audience is faced with…more of less the same dilemma. That is: do you make the best of what’s in front of you, even if that romantic spark is nowhere to be found?

Dave Thomas Brown (Michael), Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca), Cullen R. Titmas (Bud) and Caitlin Houlahan (Carolyn) in the national tour of The Bridges of Madison County.
Dave Thomas Brown (Michael), Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca), Cullen R. Titmas (Bud) and Caitlin Houlahan (Carolyn) in the national tour of The Bridges of Madison County.

If you missed both Waller’s novel and the 1995 film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, you’ll still know how this story will end the moment the handsome stranger pulls into the lonely housewife’s driveway. This is romantic melodrama, this is the doomed love story, this is the back cover of a drugstore romance novel…and you pretty much already know, too, if you are the sort of person who turns up your nose at that or surrenders to its delights. This is not a show that plays with genre expectations, so much as it tries to deliver on them with full force.

Jason Robert Brown’s score follows this theme, interweaving different genres of music as we see the interweaving of different characters’ lives. Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley), born in Naples and coming to the United States as an army bride after World War II, has an Old World sound and the traditional about her. The role is sung exquisitely, it must be said, by Stanley; while her Neapolitan accent interfered with understanding her lyrics occasionally, Stanley’s rich and enveloping soprano voice and grounded performance were at the center of a few of the evening’s more compelling moments.

Francesca’s on-stage husband, Bud (Cullen R. Titmas), is all folk and country twang, often standing in stark contrast to her more operatic melodies. Robert (Andrew Samonsky), the solitary photographer with whom she falls in love, carries a gentler, more pop-rocky tune, which blends more clearly with hers once they finally reach their duet.

Andrew Samonsky (Robert) and Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca) in The Bridges of Madison County.
Andrew Samonsky (Robert) and Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca) in The Bridges of Madison County.

The design for this production keeps the Iowa landscape ever present, except for a few key moments when Francesca retreats into her inner world or finally loses herself with Robert. Donald Holder’s lighting design follows the gentle pace of night and day on the farm, and Michael Yeargan’s scenic design relies on pieces and hints of manmade structures and objects, with the sky and the fields always still in view and the pace of time moving steadily on. Along with the landscape, Bartlett Sher’s direction (recreated for the tour by Tyne Rafaeli) keeps several ensemble and supporting characters onstage at all times, too, shifting set pieces and countering the main action of the two lovers with songs and vignettes, standing as constant reminders of the landscape and community to which Francesca is tied.

The trick, though, once all the pretty pieces are set in place and all the capable actors are set in motion, is how to keep the dramatic tension and emotional interest once Francesca and Robert set off on the road to their foregone conclusion (Will they or won’t they? Of course they do. But then will she or won’t she? Of course she doesn’t.) The blending of musical genres illustrates how a beautiful concept can sag under the weight of an entire theatrical evening—in other words, once each character establishes his or her signature sound, there is little to keep everything from sounding a bit…the same after a while. (Robert’s character, especially, falls victim to this—while Samonsky delivered a heartfelt performance from beginning to end, it eventually became impossible to tell whether he was singing a reprise or not.)

Under this constraint, the supporting characters are essential to filling out the evening. Mary Callanan as Marge gives Act I a shot in the arm with her earthly and playful rendition of “Get Closer,” a radio tune that provides the soundtrack for Francesca and Robert’s first dance. Callanan and David Hess (playing her onstage husband, Charlie) are completely charming as the nosey yet good-hearted couple next door, and by the second act one almost wishes we were following their love story instead.

Other signs of life appear in the form of Caitlin Houlahan as Carolyn, Francesca and Bud’s daughter, who landed every laugh line and captured all of the fragile pathos of teenage girlhood on a farm with an older brother. At Tuesday’s performance, the understudy Bruan Welnicki gave a crisp performance as Michael, Francesca and Bud’s son, whose strained relationship with his father provides one of the deciding moments that keep Francesca firmly planted in Iowa with Bud instead of running away with Robert. The production never succeeded in making it much of a question what she would do—while Robert and a romantic life on the road are meant to stir some deep longing inside her, the only bits of vitality to be found onstage were emanating from the people already in Francesca’s life. Ironically, it is the rambunctiousness and mismatched melodies between Francesca and Bud and the townspeople that offered any real drive and dramatic interest—it was romantic consonance between Francesca and Robert that got monotonous. A shame one took up so much more stage time than the other…

The Bridges of Madison County is earnest and technically well-executed, but lacking any real stakes in the central love story. As a result, Tuesday’s audience offered the a totally reasonable reaction when, after an evening of clapping and laughing and following these characters through their transformative love story, they watched the two lovers embrace passionately for the last time…and laughed.


Lydia Lunning