Beautiful Score and Fine Performances Enlighten the Dark BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY

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THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY at the Fox Theatre, St. Louis. Photo by Matthew Murphy

 THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY is the Tony Award winning musical based on the novel by Robert James Waller, which in turn was made into a hit 1995 film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood with Meryl Streep. I have somehow managed to miss the film and never got around to the book. I entered the resplendent Fox Theatre in St. Louis knowing only that it was a musical and a love story, and that there were likely going ot be bridges of some sort. I’d like to tell you that I always plan to see shows like this with zero preconceived notions, but this one was just providence.

What I didn’t know, and judging by the attrition of the audience over the first act and intermission a lot of folks didn’t either, was that the production’s singing numbers were largely operatic and that the love story is actually an affair by a bored and lonely Iowa housewife and a handsome stranger who was jus t passing through town. I still haven’t decided what I think of the story. I mean, it’s written well and it never got dull, but it’s sort of uncomfortable to think that this Italian immigrant housewife was ready to consider leaving her husband and children. The affair takes place while the rest of the family is at the Indiana State Fair to compete for the title of Best Steer, 1965. I don’t want to give away the end of the story for those of you, like me, might be experiencing the story in any format for the first time, but I found the ending to be a bit flat. For all the steamy passion, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY goes out with a sigh of “Well, that was that.”

I certainly can’t fault the actors for the production not quite clicking for me. The cast is very good, and the leads are excellent. Francesca, formerly of Naples, Italy, was played by the wonderful Elizabeth Stanley. While operatic style is usually not my thing, I was nonetheless charmed by her beauty, her wit, and her incredible voice. I might quibble over style, but there’s no denying that Elizabeth has a gifted voice. Robert, the wayward shutterbug from National Geographic who wins Francesca’s heart (don’t worry—not a spoiler!), was played by Andrew Samonsky, a tall drink of water with a carefree mane that would probably get him labeled as “hottie” today but “hippie” in 1965.Andrew sings in a operatic fashion but often a bit more low key while still presenting a fine high tenor range. Bud, Francesca’s unsuspecting husband, is played by Cullen R. Titmas who feels absolutely genuine as the hard but fair farmer struggling to get by. He gets off easy by being able to sing in a more traditional musical style. The kids are solid too, with John Campione as Michael and Caitlin Houlahan as Carolyn. Marge, played by Marie Callanan and Charlie, played by David Hess, get some of the best lines in the show as Francesca and Bud’s nosy but steadfastly loyal neighbors.

The vocals come down to preference and the quality of their voices, particularly the leads, more than overcomes the personal preference of the delivery. The music in this production, however, is beyond reproach. Composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s music is beautifully crafted; the words resonate as the score fills the room, complimenting but never overshadowing the performers. His Tony Award and the Broadway run’s many other accolades are all richly deserved. I do have to question the set design though--the bridges are famously covered, and the setpiece here is merely three arches that decend from the ceiling when needed. I know, use my imagination, but when the script refers to "covered bridges" more than a couple of times I think they could have been a bit more creative to add that effect.

Adultery is probably not an entirely novel concept in musical theatre. The incendiary passion of Francesca and Robert is handled delicately enough—they’re often very sweet with each other, a perfect love story were it not for the back story of hubby Bud. Like a lot of macho guys, Bud doesn’t seem to be able to tell his wife exactly how he feels about her, but it’s clear to the audience that he does love her. Her betrayal of his trust makes Francesca something of the villain here. Temptation and ultimately the rejection of temptation would have made her heroic. Of course, that is probably the rarer outcome, and she’s not the evil, she’s just human. Maybe that’s why it hard to cheer for Francesca or Robert; we’re used to our musical leads being the quintessential hero, flawed as they may be. Or maybe that’s why I and those who left early found THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY somewhat disquieting—perhaps this particular piece of escapism entertainment comes just a bit too close to an all too common reality.

THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY is only in town from April 5-17, so if you are planning on seeing it check for ticket information and for more on the national tour. 

3.5 / 5.0