Monday, December 7, 2015

Love is Always Better

Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky
When The Bridges of Madison County opened on Broadway in 2014 it played a disappointing 137 performances. Despite critical acclaim, the show did not catch on with audiences. Luckily, the powers that be have given it another life on the road and, even luckier for me, when the show launched its’ national tour last week it was right in my backyard at the Des Moines Civic Center. When I set out to write this post, I told myself I would avoid gushing. But since these posts are written mostly for my own enjoyment (there are not a whole lot of eyes on them - Google gives me the numbers, thank you Google), why not gush? 

The Bridges of Madison County is brilliant. Even though I knew of the acclaim and Tony Awards the show had received, the title has been reduced to ‘Meryl Streep has an affair with Clint Eastwood,’ and that burden was difficult to shake, at least until the moment the show began. And while the plot does indeed revolve around an extramarital affair between a farmer’s wife and a photographer, the show is about so much more: the choices we face, the chances we take and the weight of the consequences. The strong book, music and cast make this show stand alone in a Broadway landscape riddled with copycats.

Set in Iowa in 1965, The Bridges of Madison County tells the story of Francesca Johnson, an Italian immigrant who came to the United States after World War II, and Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer on assignment in Winterset, Iowa, to capture the famous covered bridges.  Their worlds unexpectedly collide as Francesca’s husband and kids head off to the fair and Robert approaches Francesca for directions to one of the bridges. The story could have easily veered towards pure treacle, but Marsha Norman’s book is nicely balanced with moments of quiet emotion and dry humor. 

What sets The Bridges of Madison County apart is the lush, layered and nuanced music from Jason Robert Brown, who received two well-deserved Tony Awards for the score and orchestrations. Brown has impeccably blended several musical styles: Americana, twangy bluegrass and soaring operatic passages. That may seem disjointed, but in Brown’s capable hands each style blends flawlessly with the story and the scenes in which they play out. Brown has infused each song with the emotions of the characters. “One Second and a Million Miles,” beats and pulses in time with Robert and Francesca’s rapidly entwining hearts. In addition to the emotion, the imagery in the lyrics paints a picture so rich that the audience finds themselves transported across the globe and back in time. A verse from “It All Fades Away" is a prime example, "There was something in a desert. There was some place wild and green, and a child in a village I passed through. There are places that I’ve traveled, and so many things I’ve seen, and it all fades away but you.” “It All Fades Away” is the show-stopping ballad, and how fantastic that instead of belonging to the female lead (in typical Broadway fashion) here it is belted by the male lead. It is impossible not to fall for the melodic strains of the guitar, piano and mandolin. It would be easy to expound on each and every song, but it will be to your benefit to discover the beauty for yourself.

Samonsky and Stanley
The entire cast of The Bridges of Madison County is superb. Mary Callanan and David Hess, the nosy neighbors, deliver the well-timed humor with their comedic timing and each has a strong set of pipes that they display during a couple of fantastic solo opportunities. Rounding out the core ensemble, Cullen R. Titmas, Dave Thomas Brown and Caitlin Houlahan as Francesca’s husband, son and daughter are also very strong. Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca) and Andrew Samonsky (Robert) carry the weight of the show on their shoulders and do not disappoint. Their rich, clear voices never reveal the complexity or difficulty of the music and they bring the songs to life with distinctive expression and tone. You can see the conflict in their eyes and feel the trepidation in their voice. Neither Robert nor Francesca had any expectation that a simple request for directions would go beyond just that and from the flicker of unexpected connection to the freedom of giving in, Samonsky and Stanley expertly portray the emotional journey. 

Frames, photographs and the stories that they tell is a theme woven throughout The Bridges of Madison County. The theme plays in obvious forms, such as the lyrics of “The World Inside a Frame” or “It All Fades Away,” which packs a unique emotional punch with the haunting images of fading photographs, but even the set expands on the theme. The Roseman bridge is simply presented as three framing beams and other interior and exterior sets are always partial, lacking walls and other structure. Practical for a touring show? Sure. But giving the audience only part of the whole emphasizes that no one other than Robert and Francesca will ever truly know or understand their story.

And if launching the national tour was not enough, Des Moines had the privilege of hosting Jason Robert Brown himself, who conducted the orchestra at each performance last week. What an amazing treat to watch the creator of the show bring it to life for new eyes. Alas, The Bridges of Madison County has moved on, out to LA. But it is set to swing back to the Midwest next spring, and you can bet I’m already making plans. To paraphrase Brown’s lyrics: The Bridges of Madison County surrounds you, it connects you and it simply won't let go.

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