The national tour of The Bridges of Madison County, the Broadway musical version, opened Thursday, Dec. 10, at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. The show is entertaining, but missing something. Much like the strange square arches in the set that are supposed to represent the romantic covered bridges, the audience can fill in the gaps and enjoy the show or peer at the emptiness and think The Bridges of Madison County could have been more.
Those who remember the movie (a Clint Eastwood rarity – a romantic weeper – with Meryl Streep or the sappy best-selling novella by native Iowan Robert James Waller, the musical The Bridges of Madison County tries to flesh out aspects of the “whippet thin” plot. Taking place in 1965, all the renditions tell the story of Francesca, a war bride from Italy who is now a middle-aged farmwife, and Robert Kincaid, a peripatetic divorced National Geographic photographer who is sent to shoot the scenic covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa. The two meet and fall in love while Francesca’s husband and teenaged children are on a weekend trip to the 4H competition at the state fair.
There is more back story offered in songs, and a better look at the rest of Francesca’s family, townsfolk and others compared to the movie and book. But, the two central lovers are still the heart of the show. Luckily for audiences, the national tour duo is well-cast.
Elizabeth Stanley, in a dark wig and credible accent, offers an expressive, operatic soprano that makes the weak songs of Francesca listenable. She conveys the yearning of the girl who left Naples to be stuck in Iowa raising corn and children.
Tall, lanky Andrew Samonsky plays the photographer that has Francesca wondering aloud if he was sent to her “by the patron saint of Iowa housewives.” He does not seem as rugged as Eastwood, but it is easy to see why the yearning Francesca starts yearning for him. Unfortunately, Samonsky, who has a smooth tenor that is a little rough enough, is given several mundane, unimpressive songs to sing. He does a romantic duet with Stanley (Falling Into You) that ends art one and one of the more hummable songs in the score near the end (It All Fades Away). But he mainly serves as eye candy (with and without a shirt) for Francesca and the audience.
Marsha Norman (who wrote the book for The Color Purple) crafted The Bridges of Madison County book, and three-time Tony Award-winner Jason Robert Brown (Parade and The Last Five Years) composed and orchestrated the score (in L.A., he even conducted the orchestra). Much like one would expect for Iowa in the 1960s, the music crosses all several genres from the opera strains Francesca offers, to the country twang of her husband, Bud (Cullen R. Titmas), the neighbor’s torch song, and some bluesy bits. However, both Norman and Brown are not at their best here. That is especially true in the parts of the musical that flesh out (i.e., pad) the thin plot.
One area Norman enhanced was adding a pair of nosy neighbors, Marge and Charlie (Mary Callanan and David Hess), who add a comic touch. Their rapport is fun and Callanan’s torch song, Get Closer, is a pleasant addition. But Charlie’s bluesy number When I’m Gone, while one of the better pieces in the show, seems stuck in to flash out a short Ace Two. Additionally, the movie ended with the couple drifting back to their lives. The book adds a coda. But the musical has three numbers after the couple parts to reflect the daughter getting married and having a child, the son going to college and med school, and the decades passing. Unfortunately, the time does not fly for the audience.
The romantic fantasy that is The Bridges of Madison County is pretty standard, but it could be more. Certainly it would have helped it the songs were more engaging and the padding not so obvious. The show remains at the Ahmanson in L.A. until Jan. 17, and then the national tour will move to Houston, Dallas, Tempe, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh and several other American cities for most of the next year.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
Performance Dec. 10, 2015
Center Theatre Group: Bridges of Madison County
Variety: Broadway Review: ‘The Bridges of Madison County’
Photos of Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky (top) and ensemble (Dave Thomas Brown, Tom Treadwell, Cole Burden, Cullen R. Titmas, Elizabeth Stanley, David Hess, Mary Callanan, Caitlin Houlahan and Matt Stokes) by Matthew Murphy, Courtesy of Center Theatre Group