By Barry Reszel
If you and I, dear reader, have just one second…there’s no place I’d rather spend it than Lincolnshire’s Marriott Theatre listening to Nathaniel Stampley and Kathy Voyko’s flawlessly harmonious belt of Jason Robert Brown‘s anthem of anthems, “A Million Miles.” (The Broadway version by Steven Pasquale and Kelli O’Hara, they’re pretty good too, is here.)
Indeed the joint Jeff-worthy performances by the two leads in The Bridges of Madison County‘s Chicagoland premiere are absolutely stunning. Depicting National Geographic Photographer Robert Kincaid and Italian war bride Francesca Johnson embroiled in a four-day love affair, Stampley and Voyko are, together with Brown’s folksy, operatic, soaring songbook (of which “Miles” is the most of many unforgettable songs), the chief takeaways in a Broadway-caliber production gorgeously guided by gifted Director Nick Bowling.
Chief…but certainly not only.
Visually, Jeffrey D. Kmiec‘s most memorable set for Marriott’s in-the-round setting features the ensemble creating the Roseman Bridge by way of choreographed assembly of its representational parts. Overall, his multi-tiered stage includes a variety of hidden gems all surrounded by Midwestern grey, weathered barn wood providing texture for Anthony Churchill lovely projected landscapes. So too do Jesse Klug‘s beautiful lighting and Sally Dolembo’s spot-on costuming authentically capture four days of Iowa sunrises and sunsets in the summer of 1965.
Back onstage, Bart Shatto perfectly plays Francesca’s farmer husband Bud who conveniently takes the couple’s children to Indianapolis to enter their prized steer in competition at the same time the ruggedly handsome Kincaid comes to town. Shatto’s demeanor matches his pleasant vocals throughout, showcased in “Something From a Dream.” So too do Wydetta Carter as Francesca’s nosey-but-loving neighbor Marge and husband Charlie (Terry Hamilton) bring texture to the tale. Carter’s Patsy Cline-esque “Get Closer” is particularly terrific.
Brooke MacDougal as Carolyn and Tanner Hake as Michael are excellent as the Johnson children. Emily Berman‘s cameo feature as Robert’s ex-wife includes the sultry “Another Life;” she’s magnificent both on vocals and guitar. And Allyson Graves and Nick Cosgrove offer numerous enchanting dreamlike appearances as young Francesca and her first true love, Paolo.
Bridges‘ stellar ensemble is, additionally, made up of former and future leads Shea Coffman, Phoebe Gonzalez, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Danni Smith and Brandon Springman.
The ostensible love story musical and author’s justification for adulterous behavior is adapted from Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel, one of the bestselling (60 million worldwide) books of the 20th century. The story was made into a feature film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep in 1995. Musical book writer Marsha Norman teamed with famed composer Brown (The Last Five Years, Parade) on this work that came to Broadway in January 2014, won Tonys for score and composition and closed after just 137 performances.
While audiences may look upon the four-day affair and discuss whether the Francesca/Robert experience is a physical dalliance, true love or somewhere in between, this story really invites audiences to look more deeply into the motivations of its central characters.
Francesca is forced to pit 18 years of marital commitment, two lovely children and the solid family she’s helped create in America’s heartland against the opportunity to escape from it all with a passionate artist who admits he doesn’t know the whereabouts of anyone who might have ever mattered to him. Robert looks at the opportunity to realize the kind of love that has seemingly escaped him his entire life. (The full plot synopsis, albeit with spoilers, may be read here.)
But beyond such a Spark Notes summary, Marriott’s two leads invite deep character inspection, playing off one another expertly, telling stories with their eyes, speaking volumes with a glance. Their move from acquaintances to friends to lovers to potential soulmates is believable even through its improbability. It’s the actors, not the story, that keep audiences wondering if his love will win out over her commitment until the decision is known.
And then there’s the singing voices.
The driving score.
The imploring lyric.
“You and I are just one second,
Spinning by in one split-second.
You and I have just one second
And a million miles to go.”
What would you do, dear reader?
I suggest buying a ticket and going to Lincolnshire to think about it.
Marriott Theatre presents “The Bridges of Madison County” through August 13 at 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire. More information and tickets are available here.