By Karen Isaacs
The Bridges of Madison County was a romantic tear-jerker book and movie that became an under-appreciated Broadway musical. When it opened in 2014 it featured a glorious score by Robert Jason Brown which won numerous awards and outstanding performances by Kelli O’Hara and Steve Pasquale.
Now MTC (Music Theater of Connecticut) is giving the show a well-deserved Connecticut production through November 19.
This show is ideal for the small theater — the cast is limited and the sets don’t require a turntable. There’s no chorus or ensemble. Plus the audience on three sides of the stage is close to the action which increases the intimate feeling that aids in adding emotional power to the piece.
Director Kevin Connors has created a production that for the most part works and is very well cast. I may have some quibbles about some elements, but overall it is worth seeing.
For those who don’t remember, Bridges is set in 1960s, in the farm country of Iowa. Robert, a photographer for National Geographic, is photographing the covered bridges in the area; he pulls into the driveway of Francesca, who was an Italian war bride who has lived on the farm for 18+ years. Her husband has taken their two teenage children (and the steer that the daughter has raised) to Indianapolis to the national 4H fair. So, she is alone.
Perhaps predictably, Robert is very attractive, Francesca is missing her Italian homeland, and for four days the two have a passionate affair. Is it true love? Who knows? They believe it is.
The romance ends when her family is returning home; despite Robert’s entreaties (and Fran’s serious consideration), she lets him go to remain with her husband and children.
The book and the movie had differences; the musical draws more on the book (it had something to do about the rights) and adds some original touches.
The score is the strength of this musical. Brown has written almost arias for the Italian Francesca and more country infused songs for her husband and children plus some romantic ballads for Robert.
The duets and interlocking songs between Robert and Francesca are beautiful.
Juliet Lambert Pratt is fine as Francesca; she is has be lovely, supple soprano voice and, for the most part, maintains a trace of an Italian accent throughout the piece. It only slips occasionally. She handles the two long aria-like story songs, “To Build a Home” and “Almost Real” very well. At times though, her gestures are both too large for the small theater and too obvious. Subtlety would have helped.
Sean Hayden has the requisite romantic aura and handsome appearance for Robert. His baritone shows well in the score including “The World inside the Frame” and “Temporarily Lost”. While both he and Pratt are good actors, they didn’t quite convince me of their grand passion.
Bud, Francesca’s husband is the realistic ballast to the affair. Greg Roderick gives us a convincing farmer, small town “salt of the earth” type. He takes his wife for granted and doesn’t really have the imagination to think she might miss her home country. He made this character both real and touching through small ways of showing his love for his wife. His big number, “Something from a Dream” is well performed.
The other members of the cast are the ensemble, playing the townfolk, the son and daughter, Robert’s ex-wife, and others.
Kirsti Carnahan does an excellent job as Marge, their longtime neighbor. She may be a busybody at times, but Carnahan gives a dimension that shows her true affection for Francesca and her understanding of her feelings. She and Frank Mastrone, who play her husband Charlie remind us that this is a part of the country where neighbors keep an eye on each other – for good or ill.
Perhaps my most serious complaint about the staging is the handling of memory scene
during Francesca’s “Almost Real” which recounts her early years during WWII in Italy. Francesca is toward of the back of the stage and the pantomime dance is performed in the front. It distracts from the beauty and impact of the song partly because it is not as well done as it could be.
Jordan Janota has created a fine set of the farmhouse kitchen, front yard, bedroom and Marge and Charlie’s house. It may look a little old-fashioned for the 1960s but it sets the proper mood.
Music director Nolan Bonouloir conducts the four piece group that includes a cello. Jason Robert Brown, who does his own orchestrations, often makes wonderful use of the rich tones of the cello.
At times I found the sound design by Monet Fleming unbalanced. Too often I felt the combo was too loud and not letting the beautiful songs and wonderful voices really be heard.
If you are in the mood for a romantic musical with lush songs, this is a production and a show that you will thoroughly enjoy.
For tickets, contact MTC or call 203-454-3883 MTC is located at 509 Westport Avenue (behind Nine West) in Norwalk.