Review: “Bridges of Madison County”

The Bridges of Madison County, book by Marsha Norman, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. Musical direction by Matthew Stern. Staged by SpeakEasy Stage Company, Boston Center for the Arts, Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through June 3.


By Robert Israel

Bridges was first conceived as a novel (by Robert James Waller), next adapted into a  successful Hollywood film (starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep), and finally morphed into a Broadway musical (where it won two Tony Awards). Throughout all its various incarnations, this sexual soaper for the middle-aged set drew audiences to its oh-so-lovelorn bosom by dramatizing the struggle adults face when forced to decide between staid domesticity and raging passion.

And the best moments (and there are a number of them) in the SpeakEasy Stage production aptly huzzah the transcendent power of love, the company’s ensemble of twelve players generating considerable theatrical power out of the need for a deep emotional connection. But there are episodes,  well intentioned as they may be, that fail to rise about the musical’s stilted dialog and the staging’s smattering of wooden performances.

Francesca (Jennifer Ellis), an Italian WWII bride, settles for married life on an Iowa farm with husband Bud (Christopher Chew) and their two children, Michael (Nick Siccone) and Carolyn (Katie Elinoff). Life back in the urban crush of Naples wasn’t all that scintillating, but there was at least the possibility of amorous adventure. The wide-open flatlands of the American Midwest, with its spying neighbors and grain silos, is an emotional non-starter.

Along comes heartthrob Robert (Christiaan Smith), a weary National Geographic photographer who has been assigned the task of photographing all the covered bridges in the county where Francesca and her brood reside. The idea is that sparks fly when they meet; the pair generate a bonfire of desire. While her family is away at a state fair, they tumble abed. The trouble with the SpeakEasy Stage production is that the two lead actors can, only build up to a low simmer; their singing voices may be rapturous, but their onstage chemistry is severely lacking.

Adding buckets of cold water to the wet blanket is the book by veteran playwright Marsha Norman, whose lame dialog sometimes sounds as if it came out of the New England Primer. Yes, Robert is your standard issue repressed male. (Should we blame his dribble of monosyllables on overwork and/or the failure of his marriage?) But there is nothing here that gives us the feeling that underneath Robert’s unruffled surface writhes inflamed passione d’amore. When the adulterous couple finally do embrace — after agonizing scenes of petrified blather — their furtive groping comes off as forced. Later, as they lie together at center stage – in flagrante – and yank a blanket over their entwined torsos, they look like a pair of driftwood logs or lava rocks that cooled off eons ago.

By the second act, the encounters warm up a bit, and the theme of making the right choices – should a married woman abandon her family and run off with the worldly photographer? – is pushed front and center. It drums up some fantasy/ethical interest: Should we live a lie? Or run off with a heartthrob, leaving behind the life we have established in our adopted land? There are no easy answers, sacrifices must be made, and the musical goes to great lengths to successfully articulate this dilemma, if falling into a moralistic lockstep. We make compromises with the mate we choose — security means making due with the rewards at hand.

M. Bevin O’Gara’s direction is agreeably hands-off; she never judges the infidelities of the lovers, letting us draw our own ethical conclusions. The musical direction by Matthew Stern – with the musicians tucked away unobtrusively at stage left – works splendidly. There are wonderful comic turns by SpeakEasy Stage veterans Will McGarrahan (Charlie) and Kerry A. Dowling (Marge), who show us that a married life that endures over the decades need not be seen as deadening, when there’s plain speaking, humor, and extra slices of cake. When it comes down to it, The Bridges of Madison County insists that there is more than one way to seize the day.

So, while the material’s supposed steamy romance is a damp squib, the talented SpeakEasy Stage ensemble offers enough harmonious pizazz to make up for the erotic fizzle.


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