The Bridges Of Madison County


Review by Mavis Manus

THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY is one of the best musicals this critic has seen in a long time. The bitter-sweet love story was first a novel, then a Meryl Street/Clint Eastwood movie, followed by a Broadway adaptation by Marsha (‘night, Mother) Norman and Jason Robert Brown, the Tony Award-winning composer.

Now the road company has brought its version of BRIDGES to the Ahmanson Theatre, with Brown conducting the orchestra. The latter’s music is the strength of the show: twenty-odd tunes which show his astonishing range. Ballads, blues, country-western, spirituals–-Brown is a master of all these idioms, a melodic wizard who also writes sophisticated lyrics.

Norman’s libretto is equally effective in the way it swiftly drives the story down the narrative rails. She has also shifted the story’s focus in a radically different way from the novel and movie. Now it’s mostly the heroine Francesca’s story, not Robert the male lead’s. Her dilemma is key: whether to give up her secure but unsatisfactory marriage and run off with the man of her dreams.

Norman also deepens the character of Marge (Mary Callanan), Francesca’s neighbor and best friend, making her a stalwart soul who provides Francesca with unconditional support when she needs it most. The sisterhood also includes the mostly female townspeople who remain on stage throughout, creating a kind of second family for Francesca, who had to leave her own Italian kinfolk behind when she came to the USA as a war bride.

As portrayed by Elizabeth Stanley, Francesca comes across as a conflicted but sympathetic woman, torn between duty and love. Robert (Andrew Samonsky), the photographer who has come to Winterset, Iowa to take pictures of its covered bridges for National Geographic, is a complex figure in his own right: divorced, footloose and lonely. He’s sexually attracted to Francesca and does go to bed with her, but only after much moral deliberation (she is married, after all). He’s a macho man with a conscience.
Stanley and Samonsky have glorious voices and are charismatic actors, stars in the making. There are many other strong performances as well, including Caitlin Houlahan and Dave Thomas as Francesca’s young children, David Hess as Marge’s husband, Charlie.

If BRIDGES has a weakness, it’s in the last ten minutes of the show, when the story takes some strange turns. Instead of ending when the lovers tearfully say farewell, BRIDGES suddenly deals with a marriage (Francesca’s daughter), a death (Bud’s) and a birth. Too much too fast–-and irrelevant as well.

That cavil aside, BRIDGES still stands out in every regard; it’s Broadway at its finest.
(Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. 213-972-4400 or