When the expressive Erin Granfield sings about Iowa, drawing out each letter and syllable, you learn everything you need to know about her character’s quiet restlessness and pent-up longing.
Granfield fervently plays Italian-American farmwife Francesca, plopped down in the middle of the Iowa cornfield by her G.I. husband Bud (Chad Wheeler, playing a straight-arrow farmer with skill and nuance) and wondering what exactly she’s done with her life since leaving her beloved Naples after World War II.
After her husband and rambunctious children (the lively, combative Victoria Meyers and Carson Collins) leave for a week at the Iowa State Fair, Francesca meets a magnetic stranger, a National Geographic photographer named Robert Kinkaid (Ryan Burke, soulful and conflicted) assigned to shoot the state’s famed covered bridges. For a few short days in the summer of 1965, Francesca is liberated from her housewife and mother role and becomes the passionate, free person she was meant to be.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it is the same one found in Robert James Waller’s blockbuster bodice-ripper, The Bridges of Madison County, a book which sent bored hausfraus all a-flutter when it came out in 1992. This 2014 musical adaptation by Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last Five Years) with a faithful book by Marsha Norman, gorgeously captures the stifling feelings and giddy awakenings experienced by Francesca and Robert during their brief encounter. Red Branch Theatre Company offers a robustly sung production of a problematic musical.
Brown’s layered score reveals the palette of Francesca’s emotions, as well as the often uncomfortable and surprising feelings Robert undergoes as he gets too close to his subject for the first time in his career (or so he says). The lyrics have that sappiness of Waller’s prose, with grown adults saying, “I’ve never felt like this before” and other gee-whiz revelations with a straight face.
When the musical concentrates on their love story it soars, through spiraling arias for Francesca that recall Italian opera accompanied by gentler, folk and bluesy plaints for Robert. Together, they make music of the transcendent kind.
You wish for a two-person show, with maybe phone calls from family and friends jarring the bubble of ecstasy the lovers create for a few precious days. Those interruptions alone would adequately show the pull of the real world always present just outside the farmhouse.
Instead, their love story becomes protracted and almost routine as the novel is expanded to portray the inner lives of those outside their tryst. Bud, Carolyn, Michael, as well as nice, nosy neighbors Marge and Charlie (a go-getting Gillian Shelly tempered by Bryan Lyons-Burke’s warm, laconic performance) all get their moments in the sun and then some. Although everyone is talented and gracious, it just feels padded and pat. Clunky scene transitions and a lace curtain that squeaks when it moves add to the drawn-out quality.
The Bridges of Madison County
closes October 14, 2017
Details and tickets
The times when the asides work is when they are organic to the story, such as when Francesca asks about Robert’s ex-wife Marian, and instead of him telling her what happened, Marian (the excellent Chani Wereley) emerges from his memory, grabs her guitar (which he lugs around due to guilt or nostalgia) and sings “Another Life,” a Joni Mitchell-like ballad about outgrowing your youthful marriage, walking out and never looking back.
The second act seems particularly long, and you think perhaps the musical should have ended when the movie did—with Francesca attending to her husband and children as Robert looks on from a respectful distance.
Instead, we are treated to what happened after Francesca makes her decision, decades of duty and loyalty as folks marry, die, move away. It makes a good case that indeed, she should have flown the coop with Robert than endure such a perfunctory fate.
It is the antithesis of the magic conjured by Granfield and Burke, playing two lonely souls who find and fulfill each other in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
The Bridges of Madison County . Book by Marsha Norman . Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown . Based on the novel by Robert James Waller . Director: Clare Shaffer. Featuring: Ryan Burke, Erin Granfield, Chad Wheeler, Gillian Shelly Lawler, Brian Lyons-Burke, Carson Collins, Victoria Meyers, Chani Wereley. Music Director: Paige Rammelkamp. Production Manager: Melody Easton. Stage Manager: Molly Mayne. Assistant Stage Manager: Lauren Alberg. Scenic Design and Construction: Jacob Cordell. Lighting Design: Lynn Joslin. Sound Design: Matthew Mills. Choreography: Kathy Gordon. Costume Design: Camille Petrillo. Property Design: Ben Walsh. Band: Paige Rammelkamp (piano/conductor), Kate Chambers and Carol Anne Bosco (cello), Danny Santiago (guitar), Andrew Bilbrey and Jack Naden (percussion) . Produced by Red Branch Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.