Posted on January 22, 2016 at 3:11 am
Everett Evans’s review is here.
Artistry, emotion ring true in ‘Bridges’
By Everett Evans, Houston Chronicle
January 21, 2016 12:45pm
On Broadway in spring 2014, “The Bridges of Madison County” impressed as a distinguished piece of musical theater writing, expertly realized – indeed, one of the most beautiful and moving new musicals of recent years.
So it’s a pleasure to report that the national tour, now at Hobby Center, is every bit as exquisite. Bartlett Sher’s artfully understated direction has been carefully recreated by Tyne Rafaeli. Most crucially, Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky give sterling performances in their lead roles as unexpected lovers Francesca and Robert. Their portrayals are so beautifully sung, honestly felt and delicately nuanced that – even following Broadway originators Kelli O’Hara and Stephen Pasquale – Stanley and Samonsky’s Francesca and Robert prove revelatory in their own right.
Marsha Norman’s sturdy, sensitive and plain-spoken book gives the show its frame. Jason Robert Brown’s lushly expressive, Tony-winning score, the most celebrated component, gives the show its soul and its wings. Yet under Sher’s guidance, every element contributes to the overall effect.
In making a musical of Robert James Waller’s best-selling novel about the brief but life-shaking affair between an unfulfillled Iowa farm wife and a roving photographer, the creators have imbued the show with a rare blend of intelligence, subtlety and open-heartedness. They’ve achieved much the same feat as Rodgers and Hammerstein in turning “Liliom” into “Carousel,” or Frank Loesser in turning “They Knew What They Wanted” into “The Most Happy Fella.” That is, they’ve created a musical version with greater emotional depth and resonance than the source.
Set in 1965 Iowa, the musical makes fine use of the heroine’s unusual back story. Fleeing war-torn Italy at the end of World War II, Francesca came to America as the 18-year-old war bride of an American soldier and settled with Bud on his family farm in Winterset, Iowa. She has spent the intervening years building a life with her hard-working husband and teenage son and daughter – yet still feels something of a displaced person, torn between devotion to her family and long-abandoned dreams and yearnings.
Then, one day, shortly after Bud and her children have departed for four days at the State Fair, Francesca has a chance encounter with Robert, who stops to ask directions to one of the area’s covered bridges, which he’s there to photograph. Robert, too, has spent his life looking for that elusive sense of a true connection. Somehow, their initial spark of interest quickly develops into a passionate romance that each becomes convinced is the great love of his/her life. And when Robert asks Francesca to go away with him just before the anticipated return of her family, Francesca is faced with the most difficult decision of her life.
The show painstakingly layers in every significant detail, from the past lives and disappointments of the leads, to the workaday concerns of Francesca’s family and neighbors Marge and Charlie. Norman injects moments of gentle humor through Marge and Charlie’s interplay, as well as the lovers’ initial awkwardness at the unlikely alliance. It’s because the show paints its picture of Francesca’s life so completely that the final scenes, showing the last chapters of the characters’ lives and the lasting impact of Robert and Francesca’s affair, become so profoundly moving.
Brown’s score combines various influences – opera and art song for Francesca, folk-rock for Robert, country for Bud and the other Iowans – into a cohesive musical palette that suits this story perfectly. As the connection between Robert and Francesca takes hold, each acquires more of the other’s musical colorings. The central relationship doesn’t immediately leap into rhapsodizing, but gradually builds to it through subtle gradations – intrigued in “What Do You Call a Man LIke That?”, warily speculating in “Wondering,” excited at possibilities in “Look at Me.” By the time the score peaks in the soaring duets “Falling into You” and “One Second and a Million Miles,” the passion feels real, earned even. Other highlights include Francesca’s gorgeous arias “To Build a Home,” recalling her journey to America and her life with Bud, and “Almost Real,” telling of her difficult times during the war, before Bud “rescued” her.
Three eloquent songs of summation give the show a particularly satisfying home stretch: “When I’m Gone,” for first Charlie, then Bud; “It All Fades Away,” for Robert; and “Always Better,” for Francesca.
Sher’s direction gives the show a spacious look and heartland atmosphere, with a touch of “Our Town” in the use of the farm folk chorus as witnesses. The mood is enhanced by Michael Yeargan’s spare, handsome settings, with a backdrop of rolling farmlands, lit by Donald Holder in a succession of glowing golden hues.
Stanley’s triumph as Francesca is not just that she sings beautifully and acts persuasively – but that she brings such subtle shadings to her singing and acting. She conveys the genuineness of the heroine’s inner-conflict and complexity. Even more than the obvious skill, that’s what makes her Francesca so poignant.
Samonsky has a soaring voice and natural presence ideal for the forthright, unaffected Robert. With the easy command of his singing, the unforced warmth of his acting, he convinces us his passion for Francesca is real and inevitable.
Cullen R. Titmas makes an honorable figure of decent, careworn, unexceptional Bud. David Hess and Mary Callanan lend homespun humor as Charlie and Marge, rising to later turns that prove them more than comically snoopy neighbors. Katie Klaus neatly delivers her attractive “Another Life” solo as Robert’s folkie ex-wife.
Keith Levenson conducts with proper feeling and sensitivity.
From first note to final chord, “The Bridges of Madison County” is a case of artistry and honest emotion prevailing. As Francesca sings in her closing song, “What a gift and what a blessing.”
‘The Bridges of Madison County’
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 31
Where: Hobby Center, 800 Bagby
Tickets: $30-$125; 713-558-8887, tuts.com