By George Basler
The musical The Bridges of Madison County effectively pushes a lot of buttons in drawing an emotional response from its audiences.
First, there’s a lush, melodic score by Jason Robert Brown. Second, there are two attractive and sympathetic lead characters. Third, there’s a heart-breaking love story … and who isn’t a sucker for a good love story.
A fine staging by SRO Productions III, which opened this past weekend (Nov. 4-6) at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City, takes full advantage of these elements. Well-directed by Scott Fisher, the show gives Christina Taylor and Gene Czebiniak the chance to offer magnetic performances as the two star-crossed leads, Francesca and Robert. A solid supporting cast gives strong support.
The Bridges of Madison County has its roots in a novel by Robert James Waller that was a major bestseller despite the sniping of some critics who found it sappy and mawkish. Then came a 1995 movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood that was a critical and popular hit. The musical version, with a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman, followed. That version expands the story beyond the two main characters to include Francesca’s family and her neighbors in the Iowa farm town where the action takes place.
Still, the focus remains squarely on Francesca and Robert’s love affair, and the sparks do fly in SRO’s production.
The musical relies on the age-old romantic trope of a handsome stranger who shows up to unlock the buried desires of an emotionally withdrawn woman. The woman in this case is an Italian war bride who, while not unhappy, is vaguely discontented with her life in Iowa and wondering about a lot of “what ifs.”
At the start of the musical, she’s left alone for several days when her husband and their two teenagers leave for a national 4-H competition in Indianapolis. Her plans include some quiet reading time alone, but that takes an unexpected turn when Robert, a National Geographic photographer, shows up at her door while taking a series of photos of covered bridges for the magazine.
Needless to say, the books are quickly forgotten. To be honest, the plot is fairly far-fetched. Francesca and Robert go from strangers to bedmates to soulmates in what must be record time.
But, almost miraculously, it works. The show, thanks to Brown’s superb score and Norman’s book, grabs your emotions and earns respect as a heartfelt and satisfying piece of theater.
The musical, which is basically a chamber piece, is well suited to SRO’s small stage. Fisher’s direction isn’t flashy, but it doesn’t have to be for an intimate musical that depends more on character development than spectacle.
Music Director Hilary Rozek does an equally fine job leading an eight-person ensemble and six-person orchestra as they perform Brown’s lush score, which combines elements of country and folk music with sophisticated melodies in the vein of Stephen Sondheim.
The two leads carry the show beautifully. Taylor gives an incandescent performance as Francesca, who is truly the centerpiece of the musical. She has a terrific singing voice that she gets to show off repeatedly. Even more importantly, her acting and singing capture the character’s emotional essence, which is a mixture of longing and strength. A standout number is “Almost Real” on which Francesca thinks back ruefully to her life in Naples, and how she got to Iowa.
Czebiniak also gives a standout performance as Robert. The character is much more than a romantic heartthrob. With a failed marriage behind him, the emotionally bruised photographer has withdrawn into himself. Playing his transition as Francesca pierces his emotional barriers requires skill to be believable. Czebiniak pulls it off.
Moreover, he has a fine singing voice that blends well with Taylor’s. And the two have great chemistry together. This is on full display in the show’s big ballad, “Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles,” in which the characters pull out all the stops in contemplating their lives together.
Joe Hoffman has the somewhat thankless job of playing Bud, Francesca’s stoic husband, who is the third main character in the musical. Bud is a decent man whose dispassionate exterior conceals a deep affection for Francesca and his two rebellious children. Hoffman does a good job in pulling off this balancing act, and he adds another good singing voice to the show.
As the family’s neighbors, Mitch Tiffany and Melissa Shipman provide some fine comic relief and capture the nuances of a long-term marriage. Shipman is especially good as her character evolves from a stereotypical busybody to being an empathetic friend for Francesca. She makes the most of her big number, the country-influenced “Get Closer.”
Hannah Gdovin and Logan Everson give spirited performances as the two teens with their own hopes and dreams.
The rest of the cast members do fine jobs as well. Unfortunately, they get caught in scenes that seem to have dropped in from another show, such as the hoedown number that starts the second act. Led by Mikayla Wright, it’s enthusiastic and entertaining, but it adds nothing to the plot. Likewise, Maureen Dancesia does a fine job with the pop-influenced song, “Another Life,” sung by Robert’s ex-wife. But the character then disappears into the ether.
It’s almost as if Norman and Brown realized they needed some more characters to pad 2 1/2-hour show and did so with mixed results.
Overall, though, if you want a show that honestly tugs at your heartstrings, SRO’s The Bridges of Madison County will do the trick. Order your tickets now because I have a strong feeling word of mouth will lead to sellouts this coming weekend.
IF YOU GO: SRO Productions III will present The Bridges of Madison County Friday through Sunday (Nov. 11-13) at the Goodwill Theatre’s Schorr Family Firehouse Stage, 46 Willow St., Johnson City. Friday and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday is at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 ($23 for students/seniors). Purchase tickets online at www.sroproductionsonline.com or send an email to TIXX@sroproductionsonline.com.