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
Now the road company has brought its version of BRIDGES to the Ahmanson
Theatre, with Brown conducting the orchestra. The latters 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.
Normans libretto is equally effective in the way it swiftly drives
the story down the narrative rails. She has also shifted the storys
focus in a radically different way from the novel and movie. Now its
mostly the heroine Francescas story, not Robert the male leads.
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), Francescas
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.
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. Hes sexually attracted to Francesca and does
go to bed with her, but only after much moral deliberation (she is married,
after all). Hes 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 Francescas young children,
David Hess as Marges husband, Charlie.
If BRIDGES has a weakness, its 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 (Francescas
daughter), a death (Buds) and a birth. Too much too fast-and
irrelevant as well.
That cavil aside, BRIDGES still stands out in every regard; its
Broadway at its finest.
(Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. 213-972-4400 or centertheatregroup.org)