By Amanda VanNostrand.
Philadelphia Theatre Company is sending its audience back in time to 1965, Iowa in its production of The Bridges of Madison County. Between now and March 3rd Suzanne Roberts Theatre plays host to Francesca and her family as they experience life’s ups and downs and tough decisions. Based on the novel by Robert James Waller and with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, some will enjoy this musical more than others.
The Bridges of Madison County is Francesca’s story and it occurs when she has the opportunity to have an affair. Her husband and two children are going away for a few days and when they do she jumps at the opportunity to get to know the handsome stranger who comes by for directions. Francesca and Michael tread the line of friendship and romance for a while until they both plunge head first onto the scandalous side. As Francesca struggles with her decision she realizes that things are not as easily decided as some may think. She gave up on her dream of a life in Italy when she married her husband Bud (a war couple – Italian girl, American soldier) and now that the chance for adventure and life outside of her home as a housewife presents itself, she feels genuinely torn. Should she stick around to finish out her time as a wife and mother, or take the leap and go with her new, extramarital love Michael?
The Bridges of Madison County is a musical but the songs are not ones that are likely to be familiar in any other capacity. The melodies seem forced and by the end there are no songs of note. One will therefore be surprised to learn that this show was the winner of the 2014 Tony for Best Score and Orchestrations (so don’t take my word about the music, I guess?). The lyrics are fine and do a good job in telling the story, but other than this, the score seemed to be nothing special. There are points in the show where the cast is singing but the audience is left wondering why, because no words are coming out. La la la’s, and ah ah ah’s (especially when sung by a naked couple in their bed post-sex), are not impressive and leave a feeling of awkwardness both during and after the scenes where these are the notes being sung. At one point the scenery is being changed by the cast members and they all come on the stage to give some lyric-less notes as they face the audience, and then quickly resume the removal of furniture in the next beat. There was no value in this piece of the show and the extraneous music coming from them caused feelings of uncomfortability.
One enjoyable piece of the show, however, was the way that the past was presented. Aside from Francesca’s romantic scene with her previous fiancé being played by the same actor who plays her 16-year-old son (is it just me who feels gross about this?) these scenes seemed to be quite well done. As Francesca and Michael reminisce about their pasts to one-another, characters from their past play out the songs that Francesca and Michael sing. This is a unique way to give background story and if the songs had been a bit better, the scenes would have been quite good!
The acting in The Bridges of Madison County ranges from good to great. Sarah Gliko plays Francesca with a sweetness that almost encourages the audience to feel good about any decision she makes. Barbara McCulloh and Greg Wood play Marge and Charlie with ease, and their characters are likely to be favorites. Their scenes are witty and endearing, and they are the one couple in the show to be admired. Finally, Georgiana Summers plays Carolyn, Francesca’s daughter, and the parts where she sings bring levity to the sub par music. Her voice is angelic and one can only hope and assume that parts in better musicals will be in her future.
In addition to sweet characters and Summers’ voice, the scenery in the show will partially liberate it. Iowa fields grace the background and the slanted floor gives the scenes some color. The bridge that drops down in three parts is a nice touch. The house is shown with simple outlines of the roof, windows and the door, all dropping from the ceiling during indoor scenes. There are also plants from the garden behind the house, giving it the Iowa charm that is hinted at throughout. The scenery (scenic design by Paul Tate dePoo III) certainly enhances this show and brings the simplicity of Iowa alive. The angst that Francesca speaks of can be understood in looking at what is presented on the stage.
Overall the story of The Bridges of Madison County is enjoyable. Who doesn’t love a love story? Well, lots of people. So if musicals are not your cup of tea and you do not enjoy romance (or if affairs offend you), there is not much here for you. But if you are looking for a romance and are alright with watching the epitome of cheesy romance musicals unfold before your eyes as mediocre music (at best) is sung with or without lyrics, this show is for you.