The setting is rural Iowa in 1965 Iowa. Francesca has lived there for nearly 20 years, after marrying an American soldier as a way to escape her hometown of Naples, Italy after the destruction of WWII. She's built a good life for herself and her family, which includes two children, but something is missing (think A Doll's House, which seems to be the theme of the month). Which is where "hippie" photographer Robert Kincaid comes in. She meets him while her family is away showing the prize steer, and they embark on a whirlwind romance that is doomed from the start. But as they say, "just because something ends doesn't mean it wasn't successful.*" The musical adaptation adds a few layers to the story from the novel and the movie, telling us more about the town and Francesca's family, but this brief but life-changing love story is still the heart of the piece.**
|Francesca and Robert (Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Eric Morris)|
(photo by Devon Cox)
Speaking of flawless, the original cast featured Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale, a tough act to follow. But I cannot think of any better choices in #TCTheater to sing these roles than Jennifer Baldwin Peden and Eric Morris. Both are powerhouse vocalists, who are also experts at conveying emotion through song. My eyes started filling with tears the moment Jennifer opened her mouth to sing the introductory song, which pretty much continued throughout the whole show. Some of her songs are almost operatic in nature, and we know she can sing opera. The way she unhurriedly caresses the notes and sings through every word is stunning. Eric is an equal match for her, and makes different choices from Steven Pasquale, making the role his own. The two of them singing together is an absolute thrill, and I fully believed in their transformation from strangers to lovers (although Artistry should consider hiring an intimacy director, especially for shows like this).
|Francesca with her family (Jennifer Baldwin Peden,|
Ryan London Levin, Charlie Clark, and Alyson Enderle)
(photo by Devon Cox)
Under director Benjamin McGovern, the story flows seamlessly from the farmhouse to the fair and back again, with fluid musical scene transitions. Resident music director Anita Ruth conducts the nine-piece pit orchestra, five of them strings, and makes this score sound every bit as lush, gorgeous, and moving as it should. The rolling set pieces represent the walls of the farmhouse, the frame of the bridge, the front seat of a truck, with simple elegant lines, and the lighting guides us through the different emotions, settings, and times of day. The 1960s era is well represented by the period farm-casual-chic costumes, and even the wigs are a lovely character defining touch. (Scenic design by Rick Polenek, lighting design by Michael P. Kittel, costume design by Ed Gleeman, wig design by Paul Bigot.)
The Bridges of Madison County continues at Artistry in Bloomington through February 16. I've never seen an Artistry show twice, but I just bought a ticket to the closing performance. It's a fine example of a flawless musical theater score, with the music and the heart-wrenching story beautifully brought to life by the team at Artistry.
*"Just because something ends doesn't mean it wasn't successful" is a quote from playwright Philip Dawkins' one-act play Failure: A Love Story. His new play Spamtown USA opens at the Children's Theatre next month.
**Some text borrowed from what I wrote about the Broadway tour in 2016.