I predict you’ll decide within five minutes whether you can fall in love with “The Bridges of Madison County.” You’ll listen to housewife Francesca Johnson and the ensemble sing the wistfully powerful “To Build a Family,” and you will know.
Before hunky photographer Robert Kincaid shows up in Iowa, before the cracks appear in the farm family to which Francesca is mother and wife, long before the consummation of her intense attraction to Robert, you will be invited into a world where regret and gratitude and longing mingle in that lovely ballad. If you’re willing to step into that world, you will discover what careful handling of a pulp piece of fiction can do.
Writer Marsha Norman and composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown have adapted Robert James Waller’s much-read and much-maligned novel, written in 1992 but set in the 1960s. They and director Bartlett Sher, whose work was re-created for the national tour by Tyne Rafaeli, have stressed the realistic elements of a rather fantastical love story.
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Of course, the creators give most of the weight of feelings to peripatetic Robert (Andrew Samonsky) and settled, frustrated Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley). In a daring move, both of them sing big numbers in intimate, down-to-Earth ways, avoiding the traditional Broadway “I’m pouring my heart out” belting. (I have no idea how that approach plays past row H, where I sat in Knight Theater, but it drew me into their scenes.)
Yet supporting characters get a moment to articulate anxieties and ambitions, from the daughter deeply rooted in the farm (Caitlin Houlihan) to the son who can’t wait to flee (John Campione). Bud, Francesca’s affectionate but preoccupied husband (Cullen R. Titmas), senses her discontent but doesn’t know if he can afford – financially or emotionally – to commit to a solution.
Michael Yeargan’s set flows on and offstage in pieces, helping the action to move forward, and Sher has done a clever thing: Actors who move those pieces sit in chairs at the edge of the stage when they’re not needed.
This reinforces the element of tragedy: They’re like a Greek chorus, observing people crushed by circumstances they can’t overcome. They also lend an ominous edge to the song “You’re Never Alone.” On the surface, it’s a paean to the way farmers support each other in tough times. With these silent watchers around, it’s also about the fact that Francesca is never able to be fully herself: She’s always being watched and weighed by neighbors or held accountable for her endless round of responsibilities.
Yet there’s humor, too. Kincaid deflates himself from time to time to remind us he’s not meant to be an archetype, and Francesca regards her plight with dry amusement. (Norman makes one misstep: Nobody in 1965 talked about hippies living in communes and practicing free love. That came later.)
Brown won Tony Awards for score and orchestration – has any other Broadway musical begun with a single plaintive cello? – and voters must have been bowled over by his virtuosity.
He provides traditional Broadway ballads, country-flavored songs, music that gives a whiff of Francesca’s native Naples, even a tune ostensibly coming from a radio that sounds just like white 1960s pop. (Mary Callanan, who plays a sweet but suspicious neighbor, sings it as a reflection of her own inclinations.) None of this seems showy; it all fits into this engaging and unexpectedly dignified story.
‘The Bridges of Madison County’
When: May 3-8 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.
Running time: 160 minutes with one intermission.
Details: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.