|Jennifer Ellis & Christiaan Smith in "Bridges of Madison County"|
(photo: Glenn Perry Photography)
There is striking visual imagery in the set (designed by Cameron Anderson) for SpeakEasy Stage's Bridges of Madison County; everywhere one looks there are double-crossed patterns suggesting the wooden beams in the bridges, as well as the slice of life the play depicts, with its divergent paths (with some not taken). This musicalized story was of course first a popular novel (by Robert James Waller), arguably describable, if perhaps in politically incorrect terms, as “chick lit”, (though it sold sixty million copies), then a film, and finally this stage musical, first at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2013, then on Broadway in 2014. The Music and Lyrics were by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, Songs for a New World, and especially Parade). Inexplicably, given Brown's wonderful work, it lasted only 137 performances. His complex score, incorporating styles ranging from folk to blues to rock to almost operatic lushness, was the best element of the show. The musical's Book, by Marsha Norman (of 'night Mother fame), was a vast improvement on both the novel and the film, managing to flesh out some minor characters and delving more into the demons of the principal players. Brown's lyrics move the slight story forward from a young foreign housewife's arrival in America to the ultimate fork in the road that presents itself to her. Near the beginning of the play, the heroine proclaims “I already have everything I need”, as the plaintive strokes of a solo cello accompaniment suggest otherwise.
Set in Iowa in 1965, the story centers on farm wife Francesca Johnson (Jennifer Ellis), an Italian war bride who is proud that she came to her new land, singing of her hopes To Build a Home. Her husband Bud (Christopher Chew) and their two children, Michael (Nick Siccone) and Carolyn (Katie Elinoff) leave her at home while they travel to an Indianapolis 4-H fair for three days. Enter free-lance photographer Robert (Christiaan Smith) who inquires about the seventh covered bridge he wants to add to his portfolio of six bridges in Madison County. He's “been lookin' for something at ev'ry bridge (he) crossed...the way to find the key is to be Temporarily Lost.” Francesca takes him to the bridge, and very slowly a relationship grows between them, partly observed by the neighbors Marge (Kerry A. Dowling) and Charlie (Will McGarrahan), as it's a small town where not much goes unnoticed. Robert tells Francesca of his former wife Marian (Alesandra Valea), “someone long ago”, in Another Life. Francesca gets a call from Bud, telling here they will be a day longer at the fair, while a romance brews between Robert and her, leading to an affair, as she asks him Look at Me and “he looked at (her) like he could really see... and all the things that I've hidden away one glance reveals”. When Robert asks her to leave with him, stating “that what she has been waiting for is not the World Inside a Frame, but just outside the frame”, and that he knew where he was, “but not where (he) was going” as she agrees in the song Falling Into You. She decides to leave with him; but upon the return of her family, she realizes when reality sets in that she may have no other choice but to continue in her roles as wife and mother. The musical shows the dilemma of paths between which she must choose, divided into life Before and After You. She does make that choice; years later, when a letter arrives, she thinks back on what might have been: “what I did is that I loved, and love is Always Better”, even when doubly star-crossed.
It should be noted that there are some distinct differences in the various forms that this simple story has taken. The original novel source (along with its sequel A Thousand Country Roads) and the subsequent film depict Francesca's grown children posthumously discovering her journal and thus discovering previously unknown facts about her private life. In the musical's more linear format, the music serves to underscore the tale. Under the superb Direction by M. Bevin O'Gara, with fine Choreography by Misha Shields, perfect Costume Design by Mark Nagle, Sound Design by David Reiffel and Music Direction by Matthew Stern, the magic of musical theater with a strong score makes this a more fully-developed world. Special mention should be made about the extraordinary Lighting Design by Annie Weigand, as well as the Projection Design by Garrett Herzig, which work visual magic for changes of scene and mood. And oh, that score, that glorious score, one virtually guaranteed to transport you. To paraphrase Brown's lyrics, it is hard, it is insane, to place one score above another, but “what a choice, what a gift and what a blessing” is Brown's singular work. It starts with that solo song to a solo cello, and the musical complexity develops as the characters do. As Stern has said, “Robert's musical journey (is) from dissonance to operatic...Francesca's from classical to more soaring...(in) rhythmically active style using guitar rather than more typically piano...for jazzy riffs...in 7/8 time signature”. It sounds overly pedantic, but is in fact utterly romantic.
SpeakEasy in this production mirrors the film work of Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession), here aided and abetted by the cast led by Ellis, who has never been more radiant, and Smith, who is a matinee idol to the teeth. (As Norman puts it in her written stage directions: “it's clear enough that these are two great-looking people on either side of the bridge, and this bridge will be crossed”). They're superbly matched, as are Dowling and McGarrahan, who have their characters down pat. Chew, Siccone and Elinoff are wonderful as well. Even a minor role such as a State Fair Singer (Rachel Belleman) is a showstopping turn. Three other ensemble performers (Peter S. Adams, Ellen Peterson, and Edward Simon), in various roles, are also terrific.
In this production, the camera is metaphor, the world in a box, and the fundamental question is, what would you do if you had the choice to change your life? Some of the lyrics point the way such as those sung by Smith that “there's nothing in this world today but who we are and who we're meant to be”, “we have just one second and a million miles to go” and “there are places that I've traveled and so many things I've seen, but it all fades away but you”, and even in the lyrics for the two husbands, Chew and McGarrahan: “when I'm gone this love will be all that's left of me”. Brown states that Francesca and Robert are “broken characters who each see a piece of themselves inside the other”. Norman says she typically writes “for the trapped girl”, notably in this spare and thoughtful piece that asks the question, what decisions do you make about whom to love and when? As Weller says about his novelization, “people in Madison County didn't talk this way about these things. The talk was about weather and farm prices and new babies and funerals and government programs and athletic teams. Not about art and dreams. Not about realities that kept the music silent, the dreams in a box”. Francesca and Robert's pent-up feelings and dreams are suddenly communicated where they never were vocalized before.
It's threatening to become a cliché to attest that SpeakEasy keeps outdoing itself. Known more for their “dark and edgy” work (as described in the program by the company's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault), here we find them delving into the realm of the romantic, with their usual near-perfection. Thanks to its visual technical elements and the ravishing leads (did one mention they're both gorgeous?), this production is cause for joy. It's hard to imagine a more moving, enjoyable and involving show performed with such artistry, with every one of the cast having her or his moment to excel. The story serves as a reminder that things once seemed simpler (on the surface at least), but even as long ago as four decades, much was suppressed and much sublimated. Need we also be reminded that these days we should be focusing on bridges and not walls?