By Barry Reszel
If a conversation today revolves around color, remember—orange is the new black (at least for one more season).
And if today’s coffee shop discourse veers toward psychology, there’s little doubt mindfulness is the new psychoanalysis.
Greater Good Magazine tells readers that mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens. But it also involves acceptance—paying attention to thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment.
And thus, at its best, the magnificently scored and lyricized musical by Jason Robert Brown, The Bridges of Madison County, is an ode to mindfulness.
Truth be told, it’s also a Harlequin Romance-esque justification for adulterous behavior 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.
Musical Bridges is now at Evanston’s Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre in one of the best sung, intimately-staged performances of this piece a musical theatre patron is ever likely to see. In short, it should not be missed.
Waller’s story looks upon a four-day affair between an Italian war bride with an underlying sense of melancholy, raising her family in Iowa, and a dashing, roving National Geographic photographer who happens upon her farmhouse while husband and kids are away showing their prized steer at a national competition in Indianapolis. Consumers of the tale are asked: Is the Francesca/Robert experience is a physical dalliance, true love or somewhere in between? And what are the motivations of these two 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.)
It’s not overtly complex, and with a healthy suspension of disbelief over the rapid escalation of the relationship, it’s easy to like and sympathize with each of these characters, along with Francesca’s unwitting husband, Bud, who checks in via phone often.
Brown’s songbook is folksy, operatic and soaringly stellar. It’s guided masterfully at Theo by Music Director Jeremy Ramey, one of the very best in the business, who conducts his four fellow musicians from behind the keyboard. The songs are the glue for this production, led onstage with a truly magnificent performance by Jeff Award winner Kelli Harrington as Francesca. She is simply flawless.
And Harrington is surrounded by terrific talent. Directed passionately by Fred Anzevino and assisted by Courtney Crouse, Tommy Thurston is an authentic Robert and Carl Herzog a fantastic Bud. And my, can these three leads, accompanied by a versatile, gifted ensemble, get every note out of a complex score.
Visually, Colt Frank gorgeously decorates Theo’s new Howard Street digs in a sort of horseshoe setting. And none of the technical issues apparent in the early stages of Theo’s first production there (The Full Monty) are evident. The actors are (necessarily) mic’d and Robert Hornbostel‘s sound design and Giselle Castro‘s engineering are perfect. Bill Morey’s costuming is spot-on. Together, these backstage pros and their assistants authentically capture four days of Iowa sunrises and sunsets in the summer of 1965.
Bridges‘ stellar ensemble is, additionally, made up of terrific performers: Lizzie Cutrupi, Matt Frye, Randolph Johnson, Kate Harris, Molly LeCaptain, Christopher Ratliff and Peyton Scaffer.
Because of Theo’s theatrical excellence, patrons can simply give in to this story—mindful of the characters’ struggles, allowing an albeit temporary release of their own—fully aware that this fabulous experience is just one split-second, and comforted in the belief there are still a million miles to go.
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents “The Bridges of Madison County” through May 5 at 721 Howard St, Evanston. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Cody Jolly Photography.