The Bridges of Madison County – Review by Geary Danihy

The term is used to categorize primarily films that deal with women who, in one way or another, give up what they most love, be it a man, a child, or the possibility of love itself. Perhaps the most successful “weepie” of late has been The Bridges of Madison County, the novel by Robert James Waller that was turned into a film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. The book was a phenomenal success, the movie a blockbuster…and the 2014 musical? Well, it won some Tony and Drama Desk awards but it ran for only three months on Broadway. Now, under the direction of Kevin Connors, it’s at Music Theatre of Connecticut, and the musical’s flaws and strengths are there for all to see.

For those who adamantly refused to be moved to weep (i.e., those who did not read the book or see the film), the basic premise is that Francesca (Juliet Lambert Pratt) was a young girl living in Naples during World War II. She marries an American soldier, Bud (Greg Roderick), and after the war is transported to Iowa, where she proceeds to have two children, Carolyn (Megan O’Callaghan) and Michael (Matt Grasso). Life is pleasant if a bit banal (it’s Iowa after all), until Bud, Carolyn and Michael go off to a state fair and who should show up in Francesca’s driveway but Robert (Sean Hayden), a world-traveling photographer for National Geographic on assignment to photograph the covered bridges in the county. He asks for directions. She falls in love (again, it’s Iowa – corn and cows). He responds in kind. So, what will happen? Will Francesca leave her family (and the corn and the cows) to live a peripatetic, possibly romantic life with Robert or stay put? It’s a “weepie,” so you know what happens.

Okay, let’s deal with the flaws first. The musical’s book by Marsha Norman is padded; by that I mean that there are scenes inserted to justify the two-plus hours the show runs and to allow Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) to insert musical numbers that, as sweet as they often are, should be in another musical. There are also comic-relief set-pieces that are enjoyable – can’t not like the neighbors, Marge (Kirsti Carnahan) and Charlie (Frank Mastrone) as they argue about an imagined infidelity — yet the moments are somewhat beside the point. And what is the point? Well, it’s Francesca and Robert’s relationship, and although there needs to be a certain amount of exposition to create an understanding of what is at stake, it often goes far beyond the necessary.

The strengths? Well, that’s easy. Chief among them is the mesmerizing performance by Pratt as Francesca. Talk about a woman torn! All you need do is watch her body language – it speaks more volumes than the Oxford English Dictionary offers — and her delivery of her signature songs is impeccable. Playing against her, Hayden seems a bit less than charismatic in the first act, but shines as his character realizes that he must let the love of his life escape him, and his final soliloquy, “It All Fades Away,” wrenches the heart.

The rest of the cast does some fine work, some in multiple roles, but there’s a sense that they are not so much in supporting roles as peripheral to what everyone has come to see, which is the Francesca-Robert story. There’s also the somewhat distracting placement of the four-piece orchestra, which is essentially center-stage. As designed by Jordan Janota, the set seems to push much of the action to extreme stage-left or stage-right, with the visual focus on the musicians. Given the constraints of the MTC stage there perhaps was no other choice, but there are certain pivotal scenes – chief among them Francesca and Robert waking after their first night together – that occur extreme stage-left when they should be occurring center-stage. Often attention is as much on the musicians watching the actors interact as it is on the actors themselves — a somewhat strange theatrical experience.

By and large, Bridges works and is engaging because of Pratt’s performance, which is well worth the price of admission. Given the reaction of the largely female audience present at the matinee performance I attended, the basic message of the musical was delivered loud and clear. In the parking lot after the performance, one woman turned to the others in her group and said, “And now we go home to Bud.” They all laughed.

The Bridges of Madison County runs through November 19. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to www.musictheatreofct.com.

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