'The Bridges of Madison County': Theater Review

The Bridges of Madison County - H 2015
Courtesy of Matthew Murphy
Outstanding singing cannot overcome this romantic melodrama's inherent limitations.

Following its truncated Broadway run, Jason Robert Brown's Tony-winning musical based on Robert James Waller's best-selling romance novel stops in L.A. on its national tour.

After opening and closing on Broadway in 2014 before it had time to collect two Tony Awards for composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown's score and orchestrations, The Bridges of Madison County arrives at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre with a few bright spots — although they might not be where you would expect. Taking over for celebrated lead Kelli O’Hara is Elizabeth Stanley, who, despite having such a tough act to follow, is the standout of this mostly hapless show, bringing dignified passion to yearning Iowa housewife Francesca Johnson. It helps that she’s given Brown’s finest numbers, making the weakest of them listenable, and the best of them transcendent.

It’s not unusual for a sappy romance to jump to the top of best-seller lists the way Robert James Waller's novel, The Bridges of Madison County, did in 1992, or to be turned into a major movie, in this case starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. What's more unusual is to have one adapted as a Broadway musical, bringing together a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright in Marsha Norman ('night Mother), a respected composer in Brown and a deluxe team of star and director in O'Hara and Bartlett Sher — a winning combination proved previously in The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific, and subsequently in The King and I. So what went wrong? A better question might be: What went right? It appears audiences smelled something critics did not.

The show begins promisingly with the moody cello chords of “To Build a Home,” swelling as the company joins in telling the tale of Francesca, an Italian war bride who married young and moved to an Iowa farm. After 18 years and two kids, she’s complacent but restless. Equally restless is photographer Robert Kincaid (Andrew Samonsky), who arrives in town on assignment for National Geographic. Needing directions, he pulls up to her farmhouse one morning while her husband and two kids happen to be away for four days at the 1965 state fair.

Read more: 'The Bridges of Madison County': Broadway Review

Kincaid announces himself with the tune “Temporarily Lost,” featuring a thrumming acoustic guitar in what turns out to be a variation on the rest of his songs right through to the final curtain. Samonsky tackles them with gusto, powering through crescendos, and topping out the high notes as the music demands. But more than anything he’s saddled with overwrought sentiment and lyrics bordering on parody: “You spend your time behind a camera, Sometimes you almost disappear, You see a waterfall in Cameroon. And start to wonder why we’re here.”

As a composer, Brown’s peripatetic style here ranges from folk through country and pop to Broadway bombast. In the score's favor, a number of interstitials that feature cellos and viola distinguish themselves, along with some of Francesca’s solos, such as her stirring reminiscence of Naples, “Almost Real,” in which Stanley exercises a sublime operatic soprano voice.

Playwright Norman (who penned the book for the recently revived The Color Purple) shifts the story's focus to Francesca, perhaps for the sensible reason that she represents about 70 percent of the show's target audience. The character’s inner struggle to do what’s right, despite her longing for a path not taken, is artfully rendered by Norman's book as well as in the interpretation of Stanley (seen on Broadway in Company and On the Town). 

Read more 'The Color Purple': Theater Review

By comparison, Kincaid seems one-dimensional. “Sent by the patron saint of Iowan housewives,” he's rugged, sensitive, emotionally scarred by a previous marriage and a proto-feminist. As early as 1965, he's saying things like, “Boys should have to work for their luck. Girls need it, with everything they’re up against.” Yes, he’s dreamier than real life, and no apologies are needed since The Bridges of Madison County is a romantic fantasy after all. But still, it hardly feels like love between Francesca and Robert, no matter how insistently they proclaim it.

Norman has referenced Our Town in her broadening of the story to include the gossipy farming community locals. Director Sher reflects this by positioning his company in the shadows on the stage perimeter, where they sometimes prove useful, moving elements of designer Michael Yeargan’s skillfully suggested farmhouse kitchen during scene changes.

Add in the rest of a very capable cast, including Francesca’s husband, Bud (Cullen R. Titmas), and their two kids (Dave Thomas Brown and Caitlin Houlahan), who phone in while on the road. Then throw in a nosy neighbor (a comical Mary Callanan), who, it turns out, has Francesca’s best interests at heart, and this cloying two-hander becomes seriously overstretched.

In the penultimate number, Robert belts out his swan song, “It All Fades Away.” That pretty much sums up the show the minute it's over.

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Cast: Elizabeth Stanley, Caitlin Houlahan, Dave Thomas Brown, Cullen R. Titmas, Mary Callanan, David Hess, Andrew Samonsky, Katie Klaus, Brad Greer, Cole Burden, Caitlyn Caughell, Amy Linden, Trista Moldovan, Jessica Sheridan, Matt Stokes, Tom Treadwell
Director: Bartlett Sher
Book: Marsha Norman, based on the novel by Robert James Waller
Music and lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Set designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber

Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Jon Weston
Music director: Tom Murray
Movement: Danny Mefford
Presented by Center Theatre Group, Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Hunter Arnold, Ken Davenport, Carl Daikeler, Independent Presenters Network, Caiola Productions, Will Trice, Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures