I was brought to tears by the last three songs in TheatreWorks’ production of the musical, The Bridges of Madison County. It surprised me, but after sitting through over two hours of a musical I can only call marginally good, I spent the last fifteen minutes crying into my program.
The Bridges of Madison County, which has been referred to as the Fifty Shades of Grey of the 90s, tells the story of Italian war bride, Francesca (Joan Hess), and her four-day fling with Robert (Rob Richardson), a photographer for National Geographic. They fall madly in love but choose to part when Francesca’s husband and children return home. The line between romance and drivel is thin, and this story can fall on either side depending upon your perspective.
The Bridges of Madison County is a fine show. There are some downsides and some redeeming aspects. Musically and emotionally, it cannot compare to some of the other musicals that have come to TheatreWorks’ stage such as The Prince of Egypt or Emma. Still, the show is enjoyable. But you’re more likely to love it if you already like this story or are a fan of songwriter Jason Robert Brown’s other works like Songs for a New World or The Last Five Years.
But if you get really excited about set design, this show will wow you. Bay Area native, Wilson Chin, designed a simple, yet stunning set. With very few set pieces, he creates a cluttered family kitchen, vast Iowa landscape and, of course, the titular covered bridge. The unexpected star of the show however is the background scrim of puffy white clouds, which changes to reflect different times of day with help from lighting designer, Pamila Z. Gray. The lighting and cloud designs change what could be a boring backdrop into another character in the show. The dramatic sky changes from light blue days to starry nights and Gone-with-the-Wind-style sunsets.
Looking at the play as a whole, there are some major problems. The pacing is slow, mostly because there’s just not enough material to fill almost three hours. The songs are lyric-heavy and at times exhausting to follow. There are also no surprises in the plot. Everything happens exactly as you would expect, even if you know nothing about the book or movie on which the show is based. These are problems, but they’re ultimately a problem with the show itself and not TheatreWorks’ production.
The only issue specific to this production is that the voices of the two lead actors don’t blend particularly well. The score is written to contrast Francesca’s more old-world Italian style with a more traditional Americana sound from Robert. Other productions have found a balance between the two styles. In this one, however, Hess and Richardson seem at odds with each other. Hess continually takes her songs to an oddly operatic place, but lacks the breath support to really make it work. Richardson’s voice is great, but seems almost dissonant when paired with Hess’.
That stated, there are some truly touching moments where the show reveals how short and precious life really is, and those are the moments that make it worthwhile. Some of the best moments in the show are, ironically, while the two lovers are separated. The show is most poignant when it delves into more complex feelings of long-distance love, loneliness and everyday monotony at the beginning and end of the show.
The show starts and ends strong. The set design is gorgeous and the acting throughout is solid, especially by the supporting cast. Although the dynamic between the two lead actors isn’t as good as it could be, ultimately the show is pretty good. If you’re already a fan of the story, you’re likely to love the musical. If you already hate everything about The Bridges of Madison County,this show certainly isn’t going to change your mind. But if you’re undecided, know this: the show has beautiful moments of deep human emotion and moments that are tediously predictable. It’s worth your time and money if you’re willing to wait out the slow moments. After all, you can always take that time to marvel at the amazing set design.
TheatreWorks’ production of The Bridges of Madison County is playing now through April 29, 2018 at The Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street. The show runs about two hours and forty minutes including one intermission. Tickets range from $40 - $100 with discounts available for students, educators, seniors and patrons under 35.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne