Midwestern Passion: ‘Bridges of Madison County’ at the Public Theater
The Bridges of Madison County, the 2014 Broadway musical based on Robert James Waller’s bestselling 1992 novel (and the 1995 film featuring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep), comes to the Public Theater of San Antonio in a well-realized production that is graced by attractive staging and fine performances.
The songs, by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years) provide a surprisingly emotional heft, and they integrate well with Marsha Norman’s (The Secret Garden) book, which fleshes out the characters while offering some welcome humor.
The play is set in 1965. Francesca Johnson (Mary Morrow) is a war bride from Naples who has been transplanted to the lonely farmlands of Iowa. She has been married to a faithful but dull landowner, Bud (Robby Vance) for some years, and is raising two spirited teenage children, Carolyn (Campbell Wilford) and Michael (Ramsey Marion Sweatmon). Though she has grudgingly accepted her lot in life, she has lately been feeling homesick for her Neopolitan home…and the promise of something exciting that could still happen to her.
When Bud takes the kids to the 4H fair to enter Carolyn’s prize steer into competition, Francesca finds herself alone at last — but not for long. Handsome photographer Robert (Nick Szoeke) arrives at her door. He’s working for The National Geographic and is trying to find all of the covered bridges in the county to immortalize them on film. He is scouting out one last bridge, and hopes she can provide direction.
Francesca can…and so much more. They are immediately drawn to each other, and a passionate romance erupts. Their time is short, however. Her family is due to return home shortly, and she finds herself confronted with a decision. Should she run off with her exciting new lover to an unknown future or stay on the farm in a life of familiarity?
Morrow and Szoeke project the necessary chemistry vital to portraying this lovestruck couple, and their singing voices are superb. Also, Brown has written some wonderfully resonant songs for them to sing to each other that movingly express their yearning and heartache.
The other characters in the piece also display more depth than one would first perceive. Though he’s plain-spoken, Vance’s Bud clearly adores his wife, considering her to be a precious jewel whom he constantly fears may slip away.
Their well-meaning but nosy neighbor, Marge (Katy Stafford Galindo), keeps constant surveillance on their house, much to the consternation of her husband, Charlie (Chip Wood). At first, Marge seems to be the typical Gladys Kravitz-style neighbor, but she expresses such honest affection and concern for Francesca and her family that it’s undeniable. Even more telling is how she vicariously experiences Francesca’s passionate romance with the attractive photographer, secretly longing that it could be her.
Wood is the perfect foil as Marge’s long-suffering husband, who patiently tolerates his wife’s outsized personality and continually reminds her that their normal life together is just fine — and she finally believes it. Wilford and Sweatmon start out as typically obnoxious teenagers but convincingly make the transition to more resonant adult characters as time passes.
The piece is smoothly directed by J. Scott Lapp, and Darrin Newhardt’s seven-piece orchestra sounds typically terrific. Nicholas Ponting’s clean and simple set design is effective, and it is well-lit by Dan “Doc” Heggem. Courtnie Mercer’s choreography and Sara Brookes’ costuming are also on point. And, as usual, the fine ensemble cast contributes the harmonization and movement so necessary to elevate this production to Broadway level.
The Bridges of Madison County plays Fridays at Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through June 3 at the Public Theater of San Antonio, 800 W. Ashby Place. Tickets can be obtained online or by calling (210) 733-7258.
Cover photo by Siggi Ragnar.