The Bridges of Madison County (Pre-Broadway) at Williamstown Theatre Festival
by Nancy Salz, August 2013
The Bridges of Madison County
Book – Marsha Norman
Music & Lyrics – Jason Robert Brown
Director – Bartlett Sher
Musical Director – Thomas Murray
Scene Design – Michael Yeargan
Lighting Design – Donald Holder
Costume Design – Catherine Zuber
Sound Design – Jon Weston
Jennifer Allen, John Paul Almon, Nick Bailey, Whitney Bashor, Emma Duncan, Daniel Jenkins, Caitlin Kinnunen, Luke Marinkovich, Michael X. Martin, Cass Morgan, Steven Pasquale, Elena Shaddow, Laura Shoop, Tim Wright
Few musicals head to Broadway with the pedigree and promise of The Bridges of Madison County: Music by Jason Robert Brown (Parade, which premiered at Lincoln Center Theatre), book by Marsha Norman (Tony winner for ‘night Mother and The Secret Garden), and directed by Bartlett Sher (South Pacific and many Metropolitan Opera productions). The show, based on a controversial best-seller of the same name by Robert James Waller, is currently having its pre-Broadway developmental performances through August 18 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It is a privilege to be in attendance at the birth of this musical. Many aspects of the show are going brilliantly. But many need further work.
“What I wanted to write was like La Traviata, where the people sing with that much passion,” Jason Robert Brown told WTF’s Skyler Gray in a program interview. The Bridges of Madison County, set in Iowa in 1965, is an excellent vehicle for passionate duets and solos. It is the story of Francesca, a housewife and mother of two teenagers (Elena Shaddow) who came to America as an Italian war bride twenty years earlier. When Francesca’s family leaves for four days to attend the state fair, Robert (Steven Pasquale) shows up in her driveway. He’s aNational Geographicphotographer on assignment to take pictures of the bridges of Madison County and comes to Francesca’s home asking for directions. An intense romance, instigated by Francesca, quickly develops and is observed by a nosy, jealous but sympathetic neighbor, Marge (Cass Morgan). When it’s time for Francesca’s husband Bud (Daniel Jenkins), son (Nick Bailey) and daughter (Caitlin Kinnunen) to return, Francesca must decide whether to give in to her instincts and leave her family for Robert or to stay home, resume cooking, cleaning and being a mother and wife. With Robert, Francesca feels like her former self, a beautiful, sexy Italian woman instead of the housewife called Franny by her neighbors and husband.
The show is at its best when it focuses on Francesca and Robert and their dilemma. Brown’s songs for them individually and in duet are fervent — highly effective in making us feel the characters’ passions. They are sung to emotional perfection by Shaddow and Pasquale, both outstanding actors as well exceptional singers. When she’s not singing or speaking, the character of Francesca is represented by a cello leitmotif played beautifully by Erica Pickhardt under the direction of Musical Director and Conductor, Tom Murray.
The character of Marge, representing the opinions of Francesca’s Iowa community, is an addition to the plot, we learned in a post-performance discussion — an inspired addition. As played by Morgan with wonderful comedic timing and warmth, Marge personifies our reaction to Francesca’s and Robert’s relationship.
Francesca’s sister (the excellent Whitney Bashor) is added to the plot. Robert’s ex-wife (also Bashor) is given a larger role than in the book. Both characters bring dimension and separate perspectives to the story, although the sister seems more relevant than the wife.
Jenkins plays the down-to-earth husband and father with great believability. Kinnunen and Bailey as the frisky, annoying teenagers are also excellent.
The problems begin when the show leaves the tight focus on Francesca and Robert and continues (and continues and continues) the story after Robert leaves. The Bridges of Madison County works best when it is small in scope rather than large with multiple characters on stage at the same time and quick scenes of marriage, graduation and death. Marsha Norman has written exquisite, charming language for her characters. (A small scene for Marge and her husband Charlie, the always reliable Michael X. Martin, is a show stopper.) However, there is a disconnect in the middle of the second act when the story changes its focus from Francesca and Robert to Francesca’s family. We have become so involved in the relationship that we want the show to end shortly after Robert leaves. In fact, we didn’t give much of a hoot what happens to the children, even if they show that Francesca has been a good mother. In a roundabout way, the feelings of extraneousness in these later scenes are a tribute to the effectiveness of the scenes that precede them.
(photo) Elena Shaddow (Francesca) in The Bridges of Madison County at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Photo by T Charles Erickson
The scenic design by Michael Yeargan (Tony winner for The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific) seems ingenious at first. The set as we enter the theatre — a lone tree, a pay phone on a light pole, empty chairs around the perimeter all under a blue-midnight sky — feels lonely and Hopperesque. It sets the perfect tone for a show about emotional loneliness and longing. Gradually, outlines of houses and bridges drop in from above. Key set pieces, a bed, refrigerator, table, staircase, roll on and off the stage. But with the constant arrival of the pieces — choreographed, actually, the bed only leaves foot first. Rolling fences pass each other to reach opposite sides of the stage — the scenery becomes intrusive, then annoying. It is a tribute to Shaddow and Pasquale that we stay involved in their love and angst with all the scenic mayhem taking place.
One also feels cheated by the song “God Smiles Down on the Family.” It is Bud’s response to Francesca after she reveals her emotional conflict without telling him the reason for it. Nowhere before has Bud shown us that he is religious. The song comes out of left field and feels like a superficial response to a deep moment in the show.
The insightful, inventive Barlett Sher, a director with a unique track record of theatre and opera successes, and the other creators of The Bridges of Madison County are faced with a major decision: Is this a show that is large in scope or one that is intense and intimate? Right now it is both, and the change in focus doesn’t work as well as it could. Also, at three hours the show runs and feels long. These challenges aside, The Bridges of Madison County is definitely worth seeing in its current form. There is so much to respect and enjoy and applaud. One hopes that the creators will have the courage to edit and focus on the core that is already at an extraordinary level.