They never meant for any of this to happen. Francesca never intended to allow her long-suppressed loneliness to bubble to the surface and demand to be addressed. Robert never really noticed that he was lonely, not being exactly big on emotional analysis in his way of living, or habits of thinking.
Yet somehow Francesca, a married housewife in 1960s Iowa, in a place where she says “everyone is either working or looking out their windows,” falls in love with Robert, a National Geographic photographer who shows up at her back door one day, and they find passion and love with each other.
The middle of Iowa can have that effect on people, as we find out at the sweeping and beautiful musical theater production of Bridges of Madison County, running at SpeakEasy Stage on Tremont St. in Boston through June 3. Based on the best-selling 1983 book by Robert James Waller, which sold over 60 million copies worldwide, Bridges is directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, written by Marsha Norman, scored by Jason Robert Brown.
Maybe, like millions of others, you’ve read the book, weeping your way through every emotional scene. Like millions of others, I did, cursing myself all the while because I knew I was being played for an emotional wreck, strung along by a noose I couldn’t shake, led down a road most followed. I hated the book. I loved the book. It deserved no space in my memory banks. Yet I never forgot it, she said wistfully, as she gazed into the distance, remembering some long-ago time when the world seemed to slow down and each separate moment joined together to become one, perfect whole.
The play’s a lot like that, and it’s wonderful.
The story line may be maudlin. It may be sentimental. But it also makes for the perfect Mother’s Day outing, girls’ night out, or date night. There were at least three men there with their moms during the performance I attended, obviously getting a jump on things. Besides, once you hear the grand, romantic, sweeping score which won Jason Robert a Tony, you’ll just sit back and enjoy what you came for — a love story.
And the voices, oh the voices. Francesca is played by Jennifer Ellis and her every high note is as clear and defined as her cheekbones. She’s a gorgeous Francesca, unable to look frumpy-farmhouse in even the most uninspired of groutfits. The chunkiest sweater and the plaid-est apron serve only to make her look like a back-to-the-land hipster rather than the trapped Iowa farmer’s wife she is.
Although Ellis’ co-star Christiaan Smith’s background is in opera, he had no trouble transferring his formidable vocal skills to the more accessible medium of musical theater. Once Robert and Francesca start singing together as their romance builds and they become one, the flow between the musical numbers and the dialogue moves with the themes of love, home, and dreams in a natural, un-choppy way as he encourages Francesca to “Settle back into the blissful unfamiliar.”
The neighbors may be working all the time, and the houses may be far apart, however, as Francesca’s husband Bud, played by Christopher Chew, points out in his song, “You’re never alone. It ain’t easy. This is a long road.” On the surface he’s referring to farming, but he also means creating a home, neighborly relationships, and standing by the big choices to make all of that happen and to keep it all. When he sings, “You’re never alone…” I was left wondering: is that a promise, a comfort, or a threat?
Because here’s the thing about Bud, played with amazing subtlety and depth by Christopher Chew. Chew played Bud as the least deluded mortal in this play, a thankless post when in front of you you’ve got two teenagers rebelling and running wild at the State Fair, and behind your back you’ve got two people, well, going behind your back. And dang it if Bud didn’t know it was someday going to come to this. He’s the character who’s been waiting for the other shoe to drop for long time now, and it finally has. He can hear it in the way Francesca picked up the phone. Her very breathing sounds different to him. Her pauses and her words are all wrong. God, he just knew it was too good to be true that a guy like him could have a woman like her.
Bud’s the lone cynic in this play. His kids are moving toward lives of their own, his wife experiences true love, and it’s not with him. All that he’s built — farm, home, and family are, in just a few days, threatened. Bud, the one who physically leaves the farm comes back. Francesca, who was there all along, is the one who will never quite return.
But it’s not all yearning and morals run amok. Go for the fun fair scene, where the ensemble characters get a chance to belt out their tunes. Go to see Chiara, Francesca’s slutty sister played by Alessandra Valea, who keeps showing up, slinking around the stage. Go to contemplate the concept of home and who wants to be there and who wants to leave, believing when Robert says that they were “…born with a wanderer’s soul.” Go to see what a true friend will do for you when she knows you’ve been sleeping with the Nat G photographer while your husband and kids are away, and how she will gently pull you out of your mid-life crisis and back into family life (that would be Kerry A. Dowling’s Marge, played with Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched flair, only with a heart ).
Bridges of Madison County is a grand spectacle of what happens when the fate of one day changes everything, and love in its many forms moves unrestrained passions forward and manages to bloom where it is planted.
Libretto by Marsha Norman; music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown; based on the novel by Robert James Waller; Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara; music direction by Matthew Stern; choreography by Misha Shields.
With: Christopher Chew (Bud); Kerry A. Dowling (Marge); Katie Elinoff (Carolyn); Jennifer Ellis (Francesca); Will McGarrahan (Charlie); Nick Siccone (Michael); Christiaan Smith (Robert); and ensemble performers Peter S. Adams; Rachel Belleman; Ellen Peterson; Edward Simon.
Remaining performances through June 3 at SpeakEasy Stage, 527 Tremont St., Boston, 617-933-8600
The theater is handicapped accessible