Robert James Waller’s 1992 romance novel, “The Bridges of Madison County,” was a sensation that remained on the “New York Times” Best Seller List for 164 consecutive weeks. It was adapted into a movie, starring Meryl Streep in 1995. The 2013 Broadway musical received four Tony Award nominations, and nine Drama Desk Award nominations. Jason Robert Brown won for his orchestrations and score.
The musical, playing through August 13, 2017 at the Lincolnshire Marriott Theatre, stars Kathy Voytko as the bored, and underappreciated Iowa mother and housewife, Francesca, and Nathaniel Stampley as Robert, the lonely, “National Geographic’s” photographer who shows up at her door one day seeking directions to The Roseman Covered Bridge. Both Voytko and Stampley are highly talented singers who worked wonders with Brown’s vivid, and sometimes complex lyrics. Multiple Jeff Award winner, Nick Bowling, directs to play up the symbolism of the unendingly flat Iowa landscape, the secluded covered bridge, and the neighbor’s window.
Elements of Francesca’s bittersweet youth in war-torn Naples, Italy are revealed through both song and dance. Allyson Graves dances the role of the young, shy, Francesca, trying to relate to her outgoing sister, Chiara (Phoebe Gonzalez), and meeting and losing her first love, Paolo (Nick Cosgrove). Graves returns as the older version of Francesca’s daughter, Carolyn.
Young Carolyn is played by Lake Forest High School student, Brooke MacDougal, making her Marriott Theatre debut. MacDougal is excellent, singing her heart out, and bringing out all the innocence, angst, and whininess of a pre-teenage girl contending with her pushy older brother Michael (Tanner Hake), and anxiety over her national Four H steer competition.
Their father, Bud (Bart Shatto) means well, but never quite gets it quite right with his children, or Francesca. Shatto and Hake have some good father/son power struggle moments, particularly in Act Two.
The comedic highlight of “Bridges” revolves around Francesca’s relationship with her neighbor, Marge (Wydetta Carter), and Marge’s relationship with her husband, Charlie (Terry Hamilton). Marge and Charlie show off the pros and cons of small town living where it’s great that everyone knows and cares about you, and how that’s the annoying part of it too. Carter invigorates the end of Act One as she sings, “Get Closer” into her cake fork.
Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s minimalist set imparts the feeling of flat, rural Iowa. The abstract bridge is both artistic, practical, and symbolic of the building and breaking relationships among the characters. Kmiec successfully uses projections along the far walls of the four-sided theater to impart sensations of location and separation, and the drama of starry Iowa nights.
“Bridges” success comes from its wonderful singing, effective direction, and symbolism through art and dance, storytelling song lyrics, and complex melodies, but the melodies don’t prove memorable enough to count among Broadway’s greats. Also, the lyrical wording that made the book successful doesn’t support the story once translated into dialogue and song. The story, without the prose, is just a sentimental romance about an unappreciated housewife with a romantic dream. The four-day love story seems a little unrealistic, and the chemistry between the male and female leads didn’t compensate enough to make that work.
That doesn’t mean the story is a failure by any means. It’s still a respectable transformative tale about characters with enough of their own goals, motives, and quirks to make them feel like real people.
For more information about “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Lincolnshire Marriott Theatre, and for tickets, see the website.
Photos by Liz Lauren