Reading the comments about Prince Charles and his second wife Camilla, you know there are people who cannot excuse adultery even for true love. Can you excuse adultery? Then “The Bridges of Madison County” is a musical that appeals to those who believe in brief encounters and a type of unrequited love dashed by responsibilities. “The Bridges of Madison County” is currently at the Ahmanson until January 17 and this production features lovely voices and one hunky male lead.
Robert James Waller wrote the 1992 best-selling novel, “The Bridges of Madison County.” Set in the 1960s, the books is about an Italian war bride living in Madison County, Iowa in the 1960s. She is married with children, but has an affair with a National Geographic photographer who is in the area creating a photo essay of the local covered bridges. With kids and husband gone, she has a brief four-day affair with the photographer, Robert Kincaid.
The book was made into a 1995 movie with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. The musical premiered in 2003. With book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, the Broadway production was nominated for four Tony Awards, winning for Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations.
The score ranges wildly from folk to country to even opera but this blend doesn’t make a cohesive soundtrack. Audience members might not be sure if they are witnessing an operatic tragedy or a hard-luck country saga. It is both and neither.
As Francesca, Elizabeth Stanley gets to sing almost aria-like passages. She’s a solid figure, not fat, but not rail thin. She first appears in a pale dress with a full skirt. Michael Yeargan’s original scenic design is dominated by golden wheat fields ever present in the background with windows, other architectural pieces, furniture and a refrigerator, sink and stove wheeled in an out as the scene demands. She has two kids, Carolyn (Caitlin Houlahan) and Michael (Dave Thomas Brown), who are not friends, but frenemies. The father, Bud (Cullen R. Titmas), is a regular looking guy of average height. They are getting by on their farm. Francesca longs to return to Italy for a visit, but they can’t afford the expense. She also finds little pleasure in the running of the farm or even the state fair where her husband and kids travel to compete during a long weekend.
Soon after the kids and her husband leave for the fair, a photographer comes by and asks for directions to a bridge. The way is unmarked and the signs have been taken out as a joke by the locals on tourists. She takes him to the bridge and then, after he comes back and doffs his shirt to wash off outside, she impulsively invites him to dinner. The reasons are practical: The local diners are all closed. Robert (Andrew Samonsky) is a vegetarian and she sends him out to her garden to pick vegetables and that catches the eyes of the nosy neighbor Marge (Mary Callanan) who tells her sensible husband Charlie (David Hess).
Robert doesn’t say over that night, but returns to town and the only hotel. Francesca decides to go to the bridge and meets Robert. He takes his photos and even a few of her. They return and share a meal and a bed. For the next few days, they live in a world of their own, driving out to Des Moines to drop off his film. All the while, we see what is happening at the fair and Francesca is reminded of her family through Bud’s daily calls.
Bud and the kids don’t return until the beginning of Act II. Francesca has forgotten to make dinner, but is saved by Marge. She means to tell Bud she’s leaving, but loses her opportunities, the last one when she sees Robert on the street as the family go to get ice cream for dessert that night. Robert doesn’t give up and leaves his contact information at the National Geographic office and waits for the rest of his life for Francesca’s phone call. Francesca continues her life. Her daughter and son both attend college. Her daughter married and has a child. Her son becomes a doctor. Her husband dies. Her neighbor’s husband dies. And in the end, she is at that very bridge reading a letter from Robert who has also died, but Marsha Norman’s book gives fans of the book what the author did not: A happy ending of sorts.
There are some lovely melodies here, particularly “Another Life” which is sung by Katie Klaus as Robert’s ex-wife who gave him the guitar that he keeps with him although he can’t really play it, “Get Closer” sung by Marge as she suspects adultery next door and Robert and Francesca slow dance their way as foreplay and “When I’m Gone” sung by Bud and Charlie after they both have died.
This is a lovely production that fans of the book will love. “The Bridges of Madison County” continues until January 17, 2016 at Ahmanson Theatre at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012
To purchase tickets for the Ahmanson Theatre presentation, visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, call (213) 972-4400 or visit the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre. Ticket prices start at $25.