“The Bridges of Madison County,” making its regional premiere at the Kavinoky Theatre now until February 2, is lush with outstanding vocal performance and imagery. It will also spark some interesting conversation with your theatre companion of choice…and maybe some self-reflection, too. Infidelity is wrong, but where is your heart’s desire? Friends who keep your secrets and spouses who button up their feelings: are they loving and loyal or living a lie? Yup, it’s an interesting night at the theatre.
Full disclosure: when “The Bridges of Madison County” was the novella everyone was reading in 1992, I wasn’t impressed. A decade-ish later, when it was made into a movie, I had to see it because of Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, but once again…nothin’. When I heard it was being made into a musical, I may have rolled me eyes in a ‘not again’ moment. And then I heard Jason Robert Brown’s haunting, elegant score. Gorgeous.
Kav’s production completely swept away me across that Iowa plain. This production is the epitome of romance, conflict, love, and loss, anchored by that stunning score and the incredible artistry of our local actors.
In an Midwestern corn kernel, this is a love story between Francesca, a World War II war bride from Italy who married American soldier Bud and moved to his Iowa farm, and Robert, a no-rest-in-his-soul traveling photographer from National Geographic magazine. He’s passing through town on assignment to photograph those ironic covered bridges. In a “in all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she has to come in to mine” sort of moment, Robert ambles up Francesca’s driveway for directions. Sparks fly: Francesca’s husband and two kids are away showing cattle at a competition (spoiler alert, Stevie the steer nails it), and with only two nosy neighbors to spy and speculate, Francesca and Robert share stories, meals, a bed, their secret passions.
Yes, we’ve seen this plot before in several variations. “Same Time, Next Year” is appointment infidelity. “Brief Encounter” (or “Still Life” on stage) is love on a train. But “Bridges” has a different feel, deeper nuance. What if the stranger holds some clandestine key to pure happiness?
Michele Marie Roberts is stunning as Francesca. She opens the show with her brave anticipation in “To Build a Home,” leaving war-torn Naples, familial competition with her sister, and the broken dreams of lost love, to journey to America. Husband Bud is Christopher Guilmet, a soldier turned farmer who knew Francesca was “Something From a Dream” the moment he saw her. SUNY Fredonia junior Ian Hayes is son Michael (so good when college students stretch into professional roles with a cast of new mentors), and everyone’s favorite child-adult actor Arin Dandes grows into teen-hood as daughter Carolyn. Steve Copps is the lanky, sexy, man with the camera, Robert Kincaid. A loner, a vegetarian where meat-eaters roam freely, he’s recently returned from Italy and has stories to share with Francesca as they drive to the bridge he couldn’t find on a map. And share an impromptu dinner. And grow into a four-day intensity they didn’t expect.
Roberts and Copps capture something here. Their voices in their duets are impeccably matched – note for note – with clarity, with passion, with wonder. The audience feels this, too: the moment of their first kiss, the sold-out theatre on opening night was absolutely quiet. Even in my seat, in the back of the balcony…you heard their kiss.
It’s the music that makes this production. Allan Paglia is the lead pianist and conductor of Brown’s signature keyboard/violin/viola/cello ensemble. Brown’s style (“Parade” and “The Last Five Years”) manages to be spare and lush at the same time. With voices as rich as Roberts’ and Copps’ the cello and viola in particular support their sound beautifully. I’ve heard both actors in their many roles through the years, but Paglia (and vocal coach Michael Hooker) brought out something in their voices. Powerful, wistful, hard to describe, as accomplished singer/actors, Roberts and Copps found something new here.
The show is more than romance between two: there’s plenty of funny scenes with Pamela Rose Mangus and Paul Maisano as the neighbor couple. They both get their turn at song, too, Mangus with “Get Closer,” a perfect ‘60s slow dance tune, and Maisano with the good ol’ country gospel “When I’m Gone.”
Another showstopper is ensemble member/choreographer Kelly Copps’ flashback appearance as Robert’s first wife. “Another Life” applies Brown’s style to a Joni Mitchell-esque story song. This Copps is in magnificent voice in this quick moment.
Like we’ve seen in other Kav musicals, the ensemble is full of some of the region’s finest actors, moving set pieces and adding voice and movement to key moments.
The other ‘star’ is the video and photos captured by Brian Milbrand: he and director Loraine O’Donnell with S. Copps and Roberts traveled to Iowa to pose at the storied bridge and other locations. This element that the Kav is elevating to higher art form grows on me each time I see it so artfully done on this stage. It complemented Dyan Burlingame’s set nicely.
Director O’Donnell and her team has a stellar cast and fabulous music here. If the script and story are still only so-so, the Kav cast and crew soar above it to create a great escape to a place where time can stand still for a moment and where “love is always better.”
Tickets will fly for this one: visit kavinokytheatre.com to secure your tickets. Running time is a little over two hours with a 15-minute intermission to fan yourself and splash cold water on your face. (Yes, the show is that hot.) For more information, click here.