The musical based on the best-selling novel brings to the forefront how messy life can be.
TPAC’s Broadway Series
The Bridges of Madison County (May 10 – 15; Ages 14 & older)
TPAC’s Jackson Hall
505 Deaderick St., Nashville, TN
615-782-4040 • tpac.org
Show times: Tue – Thu 7:30 p.m., Fri 8 p.m., Sat 2 & 8 p.m., Sun 1 & 6:30 p.m.
Tickets: $30 – $70
The inner struggle to do what’s right in contrast with the heart’s desire is the rub of central figure Francesca Johnson in the Broadway musical The Bridges of Madison County. The musical is based on Robert James Waller’s best-selling 1992 romantic fantasy novel of the same name, which later became a hit chick-flick starring the often-mystical Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood at the peak of mid-life prowess.
Bridges evolved into a stage musical in 2013 and wound up on Broadway in 2014 for a short run of 137 performances. Somehow, it garnered two Tony Awards for Best Orchestration and Best Score; it was up against Aladdin, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder and If/Then — Gentleman’s Guide won Best Musical that year (note: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder comes to TPAC January 24 – 29, 2017). I say “somehow” because the musical numbers are neither melodic, catchy nor memorable. Stylistically, they bounce all over the place from overly exaggerated, sappy show tunes to country to pop to folk numbers.
Only two numbers in Bridges fit well in the show: “Falling Into You” at the end of Act I as Francesca and Robert head up the staircase for their first intimate all-night encounter; and “Always Better,” the evening’s final number when Francesca reflects on her life and the philosophy that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
The other musical numbers do provide some backstory, but overall, Bridges would be better suited as a straight play. That said, the talented cast members do a good job with the material they’re working with. Andrew Samonsky (Robert) in particular is a strong vocalist, and while Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca) has a beautiful tonal quality and a wide range, the operatic style in which she sings often makes it difficult to decipher the lyrics. This is most evident in her opening number, “To Build a Home,” which sets the stage for the audience to understand that 18 years of midwest Iowa married life has been largely unfulfilling (she met her husband in her native Naples, Italy during World War II when he was stationed there). Had I not already known the story, I would’ve been a bit lost from the start not being able to understand most of Stanley’s lyrics.
The set-up at the beginning of the show is tantamount to garnering audience sympathy for Francesca when she falls deeply in love with National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid upon a chance meeting. Their whirlwind affair takes off (conveniently) while husband, Bud (Cullen R. Titmas), and teenage children, Michael and Caroline (John Campione and Caitlin Houlahan, respectively), are away at a state fair 4-H competition for four days.
Stanley and Samonsky play well off each other; strong chemistry allows them to ignite desire and then later restraint when acknowledging Francesca’s situation. Stanley does a great job of pulling you into her character’s debacle: torn between the fulfillment of true love and doing what’s right for her family whether “what’s right” is society’s truth or her own.
There are a few humorous scenes throughout the show by way of Bud, Michael and Caroline at the fair along with Francesca’s nosy neighbor, Gladys Kravitz-like Marge (superbly portrayed by the vastly talented Mary Callanan who has performed on Broadway and regionally). However, most of the comic moments in the libretto are awkwardly placed in an attempt to lighten the audience’s mood. It’s supposed to be a relief, but it’s actually annoying; it’s important for the audience to squirm in their seats, deciding for themselves, “Would I or wouldn’t I were I in Francesca’s shoes?”
It’s a no-win situation for Francesca. Bridges pulls the audience into the reality of messy life and you truly feel for Francesca when it’s time to make a final decision. It’s an uneasy emotional vortex to wind up in, and an important one for the audience to experience.
If you’re a fan of Waller’s blockbuster novel, you’ll probably like the movie adaptation more than the musical, but either way, you’ll certainly leave the theater with something to talk about.