By Colin Douglas
When life feels so confining that it feels like being in imprisoned, then suddenly an opportunity presents itself to enjoy some unexpected freedom and a bit happiness, the temptation is understandable.
So it is in The Bridges of Madison County, a romantic, picture-perfect 2014 musical, by respected playwright Marsha Norman (The Color Purple, The Secret Garden) and famed Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown (Parade, Honeymoon in Vegas). It was adapted from Robert James Waller’s popular 1992 novel. The book was transferred into a much-loved film three years later that starred Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. On Broadway, Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale won the hearts of audiences as star-crossed lovers, Francesca and Robert Kincaid.
This tender, bittersweet love story is about a kind, gentle woman named Francesca, a middle-aged war bride, who married Bud, an American GI during WWII. For 18 years, she’s been contented to live her ordinary rural life in Madison County, Iowa. Although devoted to her husband and kids, Francesca is haunted by memories of her home and family before the War, back in Naples, Italy. When Bud takes Michael and Carolyn, their two teenage children, to enter a steer in the Indianapolis 4-H Fair, Francesca elects to stay home. There she plans to enjoy some much-earned relaxation in the peace and quiet of the empty house.
Later that day, Robert Kincaid happens to drive his blue pickup truck into Francesca’s yard. He’s a world-traveled National Geographic Magazine photographer, assigned to shoot photos of Iowa’s famous covered bridges. Robert asks Francesca for directions to the final destination on his itinerary and, after a glass of refreshing ice tea, she offers to personally show him the way the Roseman Covered Bridge. It’s at this location that Francesca first finds herself becoming attracted to this handsome, sensitive and artistic adventurer.
Upon returning to the farm, Francesca discovers that Robert once photographed her hometown of Naples. Although he doesn’t have any of the photos with him, they reminisce about Italy. Francesca tells Robert about her quiet, respectable life as a wife and mother in a small farming community. She insists upon cooking him dinner while they share more about each other. Robert talks about a wife who left him and Francesca describes the flatness of the land, a metaphor for her life.
The following morning, while Francesca shops for a new dress, Robert is busy photographing the Roseman Covered Bridge. Suddenly, she surprises the photographer at his work; Robert, in turn, surprises her with the magazine containing his photos of Naples. Through her tears, Francesca confesses to Robert how much she misses her home and Paolo, her first boyfriend, who lost his life in the War. Soon their attraction turns into love and a simple friendship becomes much more.
In the current production at Naperville’s BrightSide Theatre, Artistic Director Jeffrey Cass’ delicate, sensitive direction of this lushly romantic musical is almost dreamlike. Set in 1965 Iowa, this production radiates with both time and place. Norman’s honest narrative is made ethereal through Brown’s beautiful score. The story comes alive with real people and warmed by the kind of love and longing for personal happiness that each of us so desperately desires and deserves.
The cast is, in a word, magnificent. As Francesca, lovely Julie Ann Kornak displays one of the most beautifully trained voices to be heard at BrightSide Theatre. In addition to her gorgeous, crystal-clear soprano, Kornak has the kind of expressive face upon which, without ever speaking a word, entire stories are told. In this tender leading role, she makes a most welcome return to the stage of Meiley-Swallow Hall to star in the role Kornak was born to play.
Justin Miller, making his BrightSide debut, greatly impresses as Robert Kincaid with his full, rich baritone. Although Miller’s hippie National Geographic photographer is a roving, rugged man’s man, seemingly content being a loner, he sees in Francesca everything that’s been missing from his life. Mr. Miller’s expressive voice and relaxed body language will create an empathy for this gentle, caring man who discovers the yin to his yang.
In supporting roles, Christine Ronna brings a restrained but bold and sassy humor to Marge, Francesca’s nosy, but supportive friend and neighbor. She infuses a special brand of sultry, bluesy style to her rendition of the crowd pleasing, “Get Closer,” backed by members of the ensemble. Cass cleverly stages this number as if we’re seeing into the radio to the vocal group who’s singing. As Charlie, Marge’s easy-going homesteading husband, Scott Kelley is an agreeable and affectionate good ol’ boy, a nice counter to his saucy, smart-mouthed wife.
Making his BrightSide debut, Matt Whalen plays Bud with strength, a pleasing vocal styling, but a little too much aggression. Whalen’s gruffness doesn’t balance with his affection toward his family. He spends most of the show playing opposite his two teenage kids (nicely portrayed by Shaina Summerville as Carolyn and Brandon Pisano as Michael). However, Whalen’s scenes with his rebellious son and his devoted wife, particularly after returning from Indiana, shows more rage, frustration and suspicion than love. Even before the trip, Bud doesn’t display enough affection for the audience to see why Francesca ever loved him. Bud’s character is obviously written to be in direct contrast to Robert; and caring for his wife and family is something that this Iowa farmer doesn’t quite know how to express. But Bud comes off here as a man in need of anger management counseling. We aren’t sure why Francesca has stayed with him this long or why she doesn’t just run off with Robert, while she has the chance. Whalen needs to tip the scale a bit with a little more love and less anger.
Although most of the cast plays multiple roles, the musical’s gifted ensemble also consists of Morgan Dietkus, David Moreland and Laura Brennan. Additionally, Brennan is featured as a lovely, younger Francesca, her sister Chiara and Marian, Robert’s estranged wife, who accompanies herself on guitar with the stirring, “Another Life.” What makes this production especially lovely is how Cass has directed the ensemble to quietly sit around the edges of the story to watch, like concerned small-town neighbors. They also seamlessly move John Curran’s simple yet effective scenic pieces into new configurations that suggest each new locale. Without missing a beat, the ensemble also provide the actors with personal props that embellish the storytelling. With this impressionistic style of staging, along with Jon Neuhoff’s impeccable musical direction and backstage orchestral accompaniment, the show maintains a beautifully pure and simple dreamlike quality.
Brown’s resplendent score, infused with soaring operatic passages and mixed with a smattering of folk, country and pop, is played by eight gifted musicians comprising Neuhoff’s lush, backstage pit orchestra. Employing an earth-tone palette, Shana Hall’s rural, period costumes feel authentic and especially well-worn, and Carley Walker beautifully lights the intimate playing area with sunshine and moonlight.
This heartbreaking musical, which was unfortunately short-lived in its original 2014 Broadway debut, is now enjoying its west suburban premiere in Naperville. As the opening of their 7th season, this may be BrightSide’s finest production. It’s a lovely, exquisitely acted and sung story that taps into something each of us has probably thought about: the road not taken.
How would we respond if given a chance to go back and try another route, to experience a life with, perhaps, a little more adventure, excitement and romance? This melodic, melancholy musical taps into the fantasy of one character, laced with memories from her past. It’s a story that will live in the audience’s hearts far beyond the final curtain. Like the song says, this production spins by like “Something From a Dream.”
BrightSide Theatre presents “The Bridges of Madison County”through November 19 at Meiley-Swallow Hall of North Central College, 31 S. Ellsworth Street, Naperville. More information and tickets are available here.