You know you’re in for a special evening of theater when a respected Broadway composer, in this case the great Jason Robert Brown, is conducting his own work. This was certainly true at the Los Angeles opening of the musical Bridges of Madison County at the Ahmanson Theatre this past Thursday. Highlighted by Brown’s lush, sweeping, Tony-winning score and orchestrations, Bridges is a poignant, bittersweet love story brought to life by two stellar performances.
Based on Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel, which also inspired a 1995 film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, Bridges of Madison County tells the story of Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley), an Italian war bride turned Iowa housewife, and Robert (Andrew Samonsky), a traveling National Geographic photographer. When Francesca’s husband, Bud (Cullen R. Titmas), and two children head off to Indianapolis to show their prized steer at a fair, she stays behind and has a chance encounter with Robert, who gets lost looking for the last covered bridge he was sent to photograph. They both have baggage, but fall into an easy rhythm with one another as they find a connection the likes of which they have both been lacking in their lonely lives. One thing leads to another, and when their four day love affair comes to a close Francesca must decide whether to run away with Robert or stay in Iowa with the family she has built.
Stanley and Samonsky, experienced Broadway performers in roles originated by Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale during the show’s brief Broadway run in 2014, took on these vocally challenging parts with emotion and skill, drawing loud cheers from the audience for numbers such as the second act standout “One Second & A Million Miles.” Stanley’s Francesca was charming and endearing, and her thick Italian accent never wavered. Samonsky’s sexy photographer was, appropriately, straight out of a romance novel. But this story is more than a romance—it is a reminder that life isn’t always about happy endings and some fantasies are perhaps better off remaining as such. “Love is always better,” Francesca sings in the show’s final number as she reflects on the choices she’s made, but the show makes clear that while it may indeed be better, it is not always the answer.
One thing I found truly interesting is that the show does not, unlike many stories where you’re expected to root for infidelity, attempt to villainize Bud. He’s a simple, well-meaning man, and the show smartly gives him the opportunity to tell his side of the story. It’s important to note that while the show certainly centers around Francesca and Robert and shines brightest when it’s just the two of them onstage, there is a full ensemble cast. There were times, particularly in act one, when I wondered what this musical might look like as a two-person show, not unlike The Last Five Years, another beloved Brown musical. There were certainly moments when the supporting characters were integrated well—I particularly enjoyed Mary Callanan as neighbor Marge—but more often than not they felt extraneous and voyeuristic, often literally seated along the sides of the stage observing the action in a way that reminded me of the staging of Once. While I am sure this was an intentional directorial choice (Tyne Rafaeli recreated Bartlett Sher’s original direction for the tour), I found it distracting at times.
The biggest benefit of the ensemble cast was that they helped to beautifully fill out the gorgeous score, which is absolutely this show’s greatest strength. Brown utilizes an interesting blend of musical styles from classic musical theater to opera to country pop to create an interesting and unique sound. I was also enchanted by Donald Holder’s lighting design, which beautifully conveyed passage of time with colorful, realistic sunsets and sunrises. As the show built towards its conclusion, I was momentarily taken out of things by the fact that each of the three final numbers felt like an ending, but overall I found Bridges of Madison County to be one of the most beautiful pieces of theater I’ve had the privilege of seeing this year.
Bridges of Madison County runs at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through January 17th. Tickets range from $25-$130. Please visit www.centertheatregroup.org to purchase tickets and view the modified holiday performance schedule. For information on tour stops beyond Los Angeles, please visit www.bridgesmusical.com