Review: “The Bridges of Madison County”

Allyson Graves and Nick Cosgrove in a scene from “Bridges of Madison County” now playing at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, Ill., through Aug. 13. – Liz Lauren

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Dr., Lincolnshire
When: through Aug. 13
Tickets: $50-$60
Phone: 847-634-0200

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

The essential challenge for “The Bridges of Madison County” is to make us believe that a four-day small-town fling is a rare love affair between real soul mates. Otherwise the musical by Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) and Marsha Norman (book), based on the romantic 1992 bestseller by Robert James Waller that was turned into hit 1995 film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, has little reason for being.

Unfortunately, Marriott Theatre’s production fails to generate any heat, erotic or otherwise. Although Kathy Voytko is outstanding as Francesca Johnson, the Italian war bride turned Iowa farm wife, there’s no chemistry between her and Nathaniel Stampley’s Robert Kincaid, the National Geographic photographer who comes to Winterset on assignment to photograph the famous covered bridges. Sensational as the lead in Marriott’s “Man of La Mancha,” he seems miscast here, always maintaining a certain reserve and distance despite all the protestations of love in soaring solos and duets (that both sing very well).

Voytko’s performance is deeper and more nuanced, and we get a sense of how Robert’s presence arouses her dissatisfaction with a life in which she’s never felt comfortable and awareness of the roads not taken. However, this doesn’t translate into passion. One of the most striking moments is when he
gives her a book of his photos of her hometown of Naples, Italy, restored after World War II; she’s moved to tears of gratitude for his thoughtfulness and homesickness for a place she won’t return.

Brown won Tony Awards for his score and orchestrations, and while his blend of opera, folk, country, and blues is appealing and very accessible, the music also is annoying at times. There are too many soaring anthems and ballads, too much wordless vocalizing, too many passages that go beyond lush to florid. The big love song, “Before and After You/A Million Miles,” left me cold. Best are the bluesy “When I’m Gone” and the folksy “Another Life,” which is sung by Robert’s ex-wife Marian (Emily Berman) and actually has little to do with the action.

In fact, a lot of the show comes across as filler. Francesca is home alone when Robert initially stops by to ask for directions to the last covered bridge, because her husband, Bud (Bart Shatto), son Michael (Tanner Hake), and daughter Carolyn (Brooke MacDougal) have gone off to the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis, where the girl hopes to win first prize for the steer she raised. This gives rise not only to scenes of the kids being bratty and Michael fighting with his dad, but also of Bud at the local bar and a totally unnecessary second-act opener involving a square dance. The family also makes frequent calls to Francesca.

Norman and Brown also felt compelled to provide a detailed back story and follow up. The opening narrative number, “To Build a House,” follows Francesca from Naples, where she meets Bud, to Iowa, where we learn about their farming, building a house, and becoming part of the community. Some of this is repeated when Francesca tells Robert about her past, though it’s fleshed out with an enacted account of her sister, Chiara (Phoebe Gonzalez), and the fiance, Paolo (Nick Cosgrove), she lost in the war. And once Francesca makes the inevitable decision to stay with her husband and children rather than going with Robert, we learn about the rest of her life in scenes of Carolyn’s wedding, Bud’s funeral, and so forth before we get to Robert’s farewell declaration of eternal love–”It All Fades Away”–and final gift..

On to of all this, we get the whole town, starting with the nosy neighbors, Charlie (Terry Hamilton) and Marge (Wydetta Carter), though they are mainly there to be supportive. The rest of the ensemble’s main functions are executing the limited choreography and raising and lowering set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s bridge, which looks like an oversize wooden grate you might put at the top of stairs to keep children from falling down—and isn’t covered, by the way.

Overall, though, director Nick Bowling’s staging is fairly effective, given the constraints of Marriott’s theater-in-the-square. Anthony Churchill’s projections, all around the auditorium, conjure up the expansiveness of the Iowa prairie, and Jesse Klug’s lighting takes us through the days and nights. Sally Dolembo’s costumes have a good handle on what people would wear there in 1965, which is when most of the action is set, though Marian’s hippie outfit seems a bit ahead of it’s time.

“The Bridges of Madison County” is the way it is because it was conceived as a big Broadway show, but an argument could be made for paring down to just the two main characters—or at least trimming some of the excess. The main reason to see this production is Voytko’s Francesca. I just wish she had the right Robert.