by Michele Markarian
‘The Bridges of Madison County’ – Book by Marsha Norman. Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Based on the novel by Robert James Waller. Directed by M. Bevan O’Gara. Music Direction by Matthew Stern. Presented by Speakeasy Stage Company, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, through June 3.
From the opening strains of a sole, mournful cello, you get a sense that the story about to unfold is a sad one. Let me clarify by saying I may have been the only person in the audience unfamiliar with the book or film. Which is a good thing, because I find musical adaptations of films in general to be lackluster, pallid affairs. But M. Bevan O’Gara and the cast of Speakeasy Stage Company’s “The Bridges of Madison County” do such a great job creating an alternate reality that I was truly transported. Adding to the magic is the score, which is very, very intriguing.
Francesca (Jennifer Ellis) is a war bride from Italy. After the death of her fiancé, she meets a US soldier, Bud (Christopher Chew) who takes her to the United States – Iowa, to be exact – where they are raising their two children, Carolyn (Katie Elinoff) and Michael (Nick Siccone). Iowa isn’t quite where Francesca saw herself landing, but she is content enough until am intriguing photographer, Robert (Christiaan Smith) comes to town, and reminds Francesca of everything she was and everything she has given up. A four-day affair follows – Bud and the kids are out of town – and Francesca must decide between continuing her old life in Iowa or embarking on a new one with Robert.
I am not sure I’ve ever seen a performer as thoroughly convincing in a role as the radiant, yet heartbreakingly vulnerable Jennifer Ellis. Her portrayal of Francesca has just upped the ante in musical theater acting. Every moment she’s onstage you feel like you are witnessing real-time events. And what a gorgeous voice! If nothing else about this production sounds appealing to you, you owe it to yourself to go and at least witness this remarkable performance.
Alessandra Valea, playing dual roles of Marian (Robert’s ex-wife) and Chiara (Francesca’s sister) is captivating, both as a dancer and singer. Kerry A. Dowling, as the neighbor Marge, is very funny, particularly in the song “Get Closer”. Her scenes with husband Charlie (drolly played by Will McGarrahan) add some nice comic relief. McGarrahan and Chew have one of the more catchy songs of the show, the affective “When I’m Gone”.
Cameron Anderson’s stark, versatile scenic design is a work of art. Designed to feel like a broad, wooden farmhouse, there’s also a screen where different images can be projected – the ocean. The sky. A covered bridge. Tables and chairs, moving onstage and off, are used to represent a kitchen, a car, a café. The stage is uncluttered, which gives M. Bevan O’Gara and choreographer Misha Shields plenty of room to create a raucous, Midwestern ruckus with the excellent cast when the scene calls for it. The musicians are cleverly tucked away in a windowed stall that runs just to the side of stage right.
The fact that I cared so much about Ellis’s Francesca helped the fact that at its core, this is kind of a dumb story – how could a four-day affair possibly wreak such havoc? What saves the plot from being a run-of-the-mill tale of filial duty over pleasure is the last song, the beautiful and hopeful “Always Better”. When Francesca sings “Love is always better”, even the most hard-hearted cynic will be moved. This show stayed with me long after it was over. For more info, go to: http://www.speakeasystage.com/bridges/