From Kurt Boehm’s direction and nuanced yet sure performances of the leads to Michael Innocenti’s evocative gorgeous lighting and Patrick Lord’s projections, Keegan Theatre’s The Bridges of Madison County injects spine and humor into a sentimental journey and brings the heartland to life.
For anyone who missed the “summer reading” novel, the 1995 film with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, or the Broadway show turned national tour that came to the Kennedy Center in 2016, the story employs the trope of a stranger who comes to town and sets free the strangled love and longing of a lonely woman.
In this story, the “town” has been reimagined inventively by set designer Matthew J. Keenan as the expanse of “blade of grass to blade of grass and ear of corn to ear of corn” of rural Iowa, a view that’s delivered in the musical’s first song and with dazzling effect by Lord’s projections of rolling clouds through a back wall peephole and the long waving stalks of grass against bleached barn siding.
Having just returned from a family reunion in the Midwest – well, not Iowa but Indiana – where I spent many a childhood summer in the very period novelist Robert James Waller has set his story, I know this landscape well. It’s where people boast the corn grows bigger and better than anywhere in the country, where people are good to each other though sometimes mind each other’s business more than one wishes, where my farm cousins all participated in 4H, and where going to the state fair (or “Nationals” in Indianapolis) in the hope of winning the best steer is still a big focus for some.
So, when Chad Wheeler walks on as the Farmer-Husband-Father and sings in a thick country accent, “We’ll be home before you know it,” I completely fall for him and settle back grinning, recognizing that this is the real deal. (It doesn’t hurt that my farming uncle carried the same name as Wheeler’s character, ‘Bud Johnson.’) Wheeler’s grounded performance anchors the entire show in its contextual reality. His character is farming in the mid-sixties at a time when a man could, if he lived frugally, raise a passel of kids on 185 tillable acres – (whereas now to make a go of farming you might have to farm with your brother 6,000 acres to make a go of it.) But it was tough then nonetheless.
Wheeler’s character is wound tight; he’s got to load up and drive to Indianapolis with two squabbling teenagers and their prize steer “Stevie” before it gets too hot. He sings prosaically, “I got two kids and a cow. I got to get to the show. We got to go.”
Noticeably, he doesn’t have time for romancing his wife. He thinks he doesn’t have to because half of him is still reliving the time eighteen years before when he met a woman in Italy at the end of World War II. He was ripped, confident, and a conquering war hero. The woman, Francesca, was a young girl from the devastated landscape of post-war Naples, who had just lost her fiancé to the war, and she wanted out and she didn’t much care to where.
The Bridges of Madison County
closes September 2, 2018
Details and tickets
Susan Derry has created a magical and complex character in her portrayal of Francesca or as she’s lived for 18 years “Franny.” She’s borne Bud two kids, a boy and a girl, put food on their table, and been the glue that keeps them all on keel. But Derry shows us from the start she remains an outsider. Her accent is thick; her thoughts stray elsewhere.
Derry has some challenges to face but she faces them squarely and has carefully made choices that add up. The obvious one is that her songs are written in a style unlike the other characters in the show. The part was originally written for and performed by the luminous Kelli O’Hara who possesses a soaring soprano sound. Derry, with her training in and passion for opera (she’s a founding director of UrbanArias) pushes this even further, accent and all, into producing gorgeous spinning Italian vowels and plugs into some powerful high notes.
What delighted me even more was to discover this singing-actress could deliver a most nuanced and full physical characterization. Students of musical-theatre of any brand would do well to study Derry’s work in detail. Let’s take her feet. In every scene she uses her slender appendages to reveal something new about her character. After she meets the stranger and bringing him into her kitchen, she kicks of her shoes and plants herself barefoot in front of the sink in almost brazen fashion. We know in a moment not only her interest in the man but her willingness to meet him strongly halfway. But then as they sit at the table, she curls her feet under her chair and, with her high arches, displays a coy nervousness like a cat. At one point she shifts weight back and forth between her two feet, reflecting her mental equivocation of whether she should go any further. After their first evening when the man has left, she sits outside in the warm dark night, her knees hiked and slightly apart, her feet splayed. She reveals a woman unabashedly open to her own physical awakening and intimate as any portrait by Mary Cassatt.
Derry and indeed all the actors mine the humor in Marsha Norman’s script, and some of this credit surely goes to director Kurt Boehm. They keep the work from sinking into its tendency to sentimental goo. Derry’s fast flat delivery of certain lines, “I’m so thirsty” are less a siren’s come-on and more like an escape hatch. Her comedic timing is impeccable.
Dan Felton as the stranger is a bit of marvelous casting. He plays Robert, the National Geographic photographer on assignment to take pictures of the region’s covered bridges, less as a hunk and more as a serious professional and curious world traveler. In this version, Francesca falls in love with his original mind; in Robert there is someone who at last is not stuck in his identity to a local tribe but, like her, seeks what more is out there. As they talk, she at last feels that someone sees her fully for who she is. Both of them make the four days these two have together a most believable arc. He approaches singing in an unaffected style, not to create beautiful sounds but singing his thoughts, as close to spoken language as one can musically get. If occasionally his “ehw” sours with her pure “oo” (both going for “you”) put it down to worlds colliding.
The other performers are delightful in their roles even if they are not given sufficiently deep grooves by the creators. Carson Collins Lily Warner are believable as the ever sparring, hormones-racing, teenage tornados. Paul Tonden delivers a gruff then heart-warming performance as the neighbor.
Composer Jason Robert Brown had a great deal of fun writing solos for almost every cameo part and bringing them together for some ensemble chorus “stitching” together of transitional material. MK Sagastume as a State Fair Singer and the ensemble have a cute hoe-down number. Kathy Fuller, the neighboring busy-body but Francesca’s well meaning friend, reinvents the meaning of “unbuttoned” in her raunchy version of “Get Closer.”[adsanity_rotating align=”aligncenter” time=”15″ group_id=”1455″ /]
But this, like some of the other songs, reveals to my mind a kind of collapse into cheap popularization that detracts from the delicate and nuanced tension that Boehm strives for in the production. Likewise the material of the second act gets kind of a rush job to fit in all the narrative events from the book. We get a wedding, a graduation, a baby, an illness, and death in quick order. It’s a rush all right, but not a satisfying one.
Even more jarring is the sound world that seems insistently to be part of Keegan’s production mode. Opening night we did have some extra audio problems that should be sorted out. We’ve come to expect at concerts the occasional era-piercing whistle of amplified microphones gone awry accompanied by heads turning to glare at sound technicians hunched over their boards in earnest fix-it mode. It doesn’t make the experience any more pleasant. One or more actors seem to have lost their mics down in their costumes and thus much of the show was accompanied by a rattling scratch like a horde of mice had got into the silo.
But it’s the wall of sound that plagues me the most. The necessary reduction of instruments in this small theatre setting seems to make Keegan try ferociously to make up for it by blaring. It caused some considerable distortion and problems with both directionality and balance. I’d put it to first night gaffs were it not that this has happened pretty consistently at Keegan musicals. The space does not call for such amplification. In fact it suffers from too much sound coming at the audience. The sound wall not only makes everything sound too much the same but actually can take us out of the story as it did me opening night.
In the case of this show which specifically takes on the challenge of trying to blend operatic size sound with country singing, it hurt some of the blended duet singing and certainly did not show off Derry’s voice properly as she opened up emotionally and vocally towards the end of the show.
Nonetheless, if what you remember is the love and heartbreak, it’s all there. These performers take us on their journey, and for this we are grateful.
The Bridges of Madison County. Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Book by Marsha Norman. Based on the novel by Robert James Waller. Directed by Kurt Boehm. Music Direction by Elisa Rosman. Set Design by Matthew Keenan. Lighting Design by Michael Innocenti. Projection Design by Patrick Lord. Costume Design by Alison Samantha Johnson. With MaryKate Brouillet, Carson Collins, Susan Derry, Dan Felton, Kathy Fuller, Chris Gillespie, Abby Middleton, Kaylen Morgan, Rj Pavel, MK Sagastume, Paul Tonden, Lily Warner, and Chad Wheeler. Produced by The Keegan Theatre. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.