THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, Book by Marsha Norman
Dallas Summer Musicals
Original direction by Bartlett Sher, recreated by Tyne Rafaeli
Scenic design by Michael Yeargan
Costume design by Catherine Zuber
Lighting design by Donald Holder
Sound design by Jon Weston
Wig and hair design by David Brian Brown
Arrangements and orchestrations by Jason Robert Brown
Music supervision by Tom Murray
Movement by Danny Mefford
Elizabeth Stanley as Francesca
Andrew Samonsky as Robert
Cullen R. Titmas as Bud
Mary Callanan as Marge
David Hess as Charlie
John Campione as Michael
Caitlin Houlahan as Carolyn
The ensemble: Cole Burden, Caitlyn Caughell, Brad Greer, Lucy Horton, Amy Linden, Trista Moldovan, Jessica Sheridan, Matt Stokes, Tom Treadwell and Bryan Welnicki
Photos by Matthew Murphy)
Reviewed Performance: 2/2/2016
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Funny how fate plays into which national tours gets booked within the Dallas/ Ft. Worth area. Just last week the national tour of the new musical If/Then played at the Winspear Opera house, and opening Tuesday evening at Dallas Summer Musicals was The Bridges of Madison County. Strangely enough, both musicals made their Broadway debuts within the same season (2014).
Truth be told, I never read the novel by Robert James Waller on which this musical is based on. It became all the rage as a must read, which turned out to be a best-selling novel. Women swooned and hearts palpitated over the romance between the lonely Italian war bride and the handsome traveling stranger who is a photographer from National Geographic. He is there on assignment in Iowa to shoot a photographic essay on the covered bridges.
Now I did see the 1995 critically acclaimed film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep that was a box office hit and earned Streep an Oscar nod for Best Actress. Eastwood for me never made me think of him as a romantic lead on celluloid. His one facial expression, eyes stuck in that squinting look, and that gruff, monotone voice that worked well for the film Dirty Harry (“Do You feel lucky? Well, do you punk?”). All that doesn’t exactly read romantic lead. I found the film version lackluster at best. I just didn’t see why Francesca (Streep) would think of leaving her husband and children for Robert Kincaid (Eastwood). They lacked chemistry on screen and sorry to say this, but Eastwood wasn’t exactly a hot stud. So I sat there in the dark munching popcorn wondering, “Really? Him?”
Now the book that was turned into a film has been transformed into a musical. The musical’s book is by Marsha Norman who wrote the play Night, Mother and the books for the musicals The Secret Garden and The Color Purple. The music and lyrics would be created by Jason Robert Brown. Now, I am a big fan of Brown’s works. His music composition for Parade is one of my personal all-time favorite musical scores. He also composed two musicals that get produced quite a lot, Songs for a New World and The Last Five years.
The Bridges of Madison Count y made its debut at the Williamson Theatre festival in August 2013. It would open on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in February 2014. The production was met with mixed reviews from the New York critics and struggled to find an audience. That season was packed to the rafters with musicals such as Beautiful: The Carole King Musical; Rocky; If/Then; Aladdin; Hedwig and the Angry Inch; Bullets Over Broadway; First Date; Soul Doctor; Big Fish; A Night with Janis Joplin; After Midnight; A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder; Cabaret; Les Miz, and Violet. Several flopped, others became hits.
Unfortunately the musical closed in May 2014 after just 137 performances. But thankfully an original cast recording was released. The musical would earn four Tony nominations, with Jason Robert Brown winning for Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations.
Now the musical has become a national tour, which planted its bridge on the Music Hall stage Tuesday evening at Dallas Summer Musicals and will be playing through February 14.
Having never heard the score, the music flushed over like the sweet, delicate, romantic aromas when you walk into a flower shop. Brown’s score is like those soft petals on roses. Lush, soft, elegant and romantic. He composed sweeping ballads that were so melodic, and each one with its own special orchestrations, be it strings or piano. He very wisely had many of the songs simply segue into the book and flow naturally through the story. There was no hint to bang over the audience’s head of the usual paint by number form of book scene and now get ready cause here comes a number. There a couple of up-tempo songs sprinkled within the score as well. The live Violin, Viola, and Cello swirled through the score adding layers of luxurious of romance and even a hint of eroticism, which syncs superbly within the emotions on stage. No clunky, cheesy electronic strings here. This was a marvelous orchestra that brought Brown’s score to opulent life.
Originally directed by Robert Sher, Tyne Rafaeli, who was an associate in the Broadway version, recreates Sher’s direction with tremendous success here. Being seated so close to the stage you could see the most intimate moments with a simple look or touch. Rafaeli’s direction gave the romance realistic time and space to develop between the two leads. It wasn’t rushed or false. It started with a simple touch on the bridge and grew from there. The ensemble serves like a Greek chorus. Some sit on either side of the stage, and all evening long they moved all the scenery. From pieces of the bridge, to Francesca’s farm home, doors, windows, store fronts, Francesca’s neighbor’s home, the state fair, and so on. But they did it in complete silence, never once distracting from the focus of the scene. They moved in unison to move the scenery, took a few beats standing there, and then softly exit the stage.
Another directing/blocking element that really was powerful was how when the principals told a story in song, as one sang, the other walked directly into the story to observe. Their facial expressions reflected what their hearts was saying. I loved those moments that happened all evening long within the blocking and staging. I come from the school that true subtext is best exposed in the moment and within the blocking. This production achieves that in fascinating success.
Michael Yeargan’s scenic design was a kaleidoscope of never ending moving pieces of scenery adorned with realistic props. The bridge frames flew in from the fly rails, while the cast softly brought in fences and the bridge came to life. Francesca’s roof and window frames also flew in. He had a large staircase that went to the second floor that was moved all around by the ensemble to lead the audience to the second floor of Francesca’s home. There is single massive tree far upstage right that never leaves. The backdrop is painted to represent the flat, empty plains of Iowa.
My personal term of “emotional lighting” is done to perfection by Donald Holder. For the backdrop he drenches it with colors that actually elevate both the subtext and the score. His color palette is flawless. From dark, hot soaked burnt yellows and oranges for summer heat, to dark cornflower blues and lavenders for evening, with a glittery spray of stars. For the romantic scenes, Holder lights the two leads in hues that do illuminate raw, erotic, passionate love.
The cast is packed with splendid performances including David Hess as Charlie and Mary Callanan as Marge, Francesca’s neighbors. These two provide the comic relief within the musical. A typical couple that could be called “people of the land”. He has a slight addiction to his wife’s homemade cakes. Each also has a great solo to sing. Callanan has a country bluegrass ballad titled “Get Closer”, which she sings with a great set of vocal pipes, and to be honest her voice reminded me of Patsy Cline. Hess leads the cast with the gospel song “When I’m Gone” with excellent results.
Cullen R. Titmas provides a wonderful, tense performance as Bud, who is married to Francesca. Their marriage is running on neutral, but he doesn’t realize that until he notices a change in his wife’s voice when he calls in on her from the state fair. He has taken their two teen age children to this fair. While he is loving to his daughter, he has great conflict with his son. Titmas shows with his facial expressions in those phone scenes that he gets this aching feeling that he is losing his wife. He has a very sweet song about his wife that he sings at a bar, “Something From A Dream” that displays he really does love his wife very much.
Bud and Francesca’s daughter Carolyn is played by Caitlin Houlahan. She is taking her steer to the state fair in hopes of winning. Houlahan has admirable chemistry with her parents and brother. She shows great love for her mother and father, and has that typical brother vs. sister rivalry. It is too bad the score does not give her more to sing, but Houlahan is a joy to watch.
Dallas native and COLUMN Award nominee John Campione is Michael, the heir to the family farm, which he does not want. Campione bleeds organic subtext of his personal battle of wanting to leave Iowa and that damn farm to create his own life. He rebels with his father, while at the fair he smokes pot while cleaning the stables with a friend. His mother is very aware of him wanting to escape his current life, because she sees herself in him when she was growing up in Italy. Campione and Elizabeth Stanley as his mother have these touching, non-verbal moments of glancing at each other. They each know what the other is thinking, it’s quite moving to observe. Dallas audiences are familiar with Campione’s magnificent tenor vocals from various productions around the DFW area. While he does sing in several numbers, his character screams to have a solo composed for him to explain his frustration of where his life is. Nonetheless Campione once again shows why the DFW talent pool is packed with amazing talent.
As the two major leads, Elizabeth Stanley as Francesca and Andrew Samonsky as Robert in blunt truth provide one of the greatest romantic leads that has ever graced the Music Hall stage. Their passion and love is hot, raw, giddy, honest, and sweating in erotic chemistry. There is no false hint of fake kissing, they peel layer after layer of the walls each has built around themselves, leaving them naked emotionally in front of each other. From the second Samonsky simply touches Stanley’s shoulder on the bridge, you see that attraction spark between them.
Both of them never once let go of their subtext. All evening long, they stay in the moment. But they are small, intimate, romantic and lustful moments. With just a look they give each other, you see two lifeless hearts suddenly come alive. I was just astounded how Samonsky and Stanley constantly allowed for the subtext to pour out, not only in the score and lyrics, but with riveting, heartbreaking honesty within their acting craft.
Ms. Stanley has a superlative soprano voice that dips at times into operatic beauty. With a perfect Italian accent, she has a bountiful bouquet of solos and duets within the score. Two of my personal favorites were “What Do You Call A Man Like That?” and in the second act, “Almost Real”. This haunting ballad has Francesca telling Robert (Samonsky) about her life in Italy and meeting her first true romance. As she sings like a nightingale, he observes with heartfelt compassion regarding her choices that seal in her fate.
She is costumed in plain, frumpy simple dresses that make her look older, right down to the tight bun in her hair. This works perfectly, because once she and Robert begin their passionate affair, her transformation takes your breath away. She buys a tight red dress and lets her hair down, and bam! She becomes a sexy Italian goddess that would make Italian Film director Federico Fellini beg her to be his next muse! Later on in a white soft nightgown, Stanley just oozes sensuality.
Stanley has many moving scenes that just punch you in the heart. Such as when Robert gives her a past issue of a National Geographic magazine where he took pictures of Italy. He was there on assignment to take photos of them rebuilding after the war. Turns out he took pictures of the very town Francesca is from. Stanley’s tears and breaking voice adds so much to that scene. But the scenes in Act II of deciding to meet Robert at 6:00pm to start a new real life, the tension, fear, agony, and confusion within her heart, Stanley brings out of her soul with graphic realism. She delivers a commanding, layered in hypnotic subtext, performance that is rare in today’s musical theater.
Now if Clint Eastwood looked like Andrew Samonsky, then I could totally buy into Meryl Streep dumping her husband and kids in a flash! As Francesca says in the musical about Robert (Samonsky), “Maybe you are the Patron saint for lonely Iowa housewives”. Samonsky is a tall, incredibly handsome man with a body that apparently lives at the gym. I comment on this because that is what draws Francesca to him. He does have that aura of animalistic intensity that would cause sudden attraction to him. I mean why on earth would she go with a total stranger to a bridge that is hidden off a dirt country road?
As Robert, Samonsky allows his subtext to wrap around his performance like an emotional cocoon. He very visibly shows why he does not deal with people in the “real world”. He takes his pictures, eats alone, and moves on to his next assignment. In his past he has a failed marriage that still somehow sticks with him emotionally. Samonsky allows his heart, soul, and emotion peer from his eyes and facial expressions. Throughout the evening his facial expressions gave the audience a clear view into his mind and heart. I thought the idea of him saying “I love you” to Francesca way into Act II was just the right moment.
Vocally Samonsky has a phenomenal tenor voice that just made the score become richer, fuller, and more extravagant. He has some flourishing, imposing solos within the score. Some of my personal favorites were “The World Inside a Frame” and especially the unforgettable Act II ballad, “It All Fades Away”. But one of the best songs of the entire score is sung by Samonksy (Stanley later joins in) is titled “Before and After You/ One Second & A Million Miles”. For this show stopping solo, Samonsky starts the song acapella. There is no cue for the musical note from the orchestra pit for him to begin. Samonsky just starts to sing, and it’s only his majestic tenor voice that fills the entire Music Hall. And it’s not just for a few seconds; he sings an entire verse before the orchestra comes in! Then Samonsky builds and builds, both in emotion and vocal crescendo within the song. It is a momentous number that Samonsky performs within that song. Samonsky gives an exceptional, out of this world, sensational performance that you will never forget.
Stanley and Samonsky’s chemistry is not the only element that makes their performances so memorable; it is their vocal duets throughout the score. Such as “Wondering”; “Falling Into You”; “Who We Are and Who We Want To Be”, and of course “Before and After You/ One Second & A Million Miles”.
The performances that Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky give in this musical are something that is hardly ever seen in today’s world of musical theater. It’s raw, honest, and real. Just two tour de force performances that will leave you speechless and your heart aching for both of them and their fate.
Nowadays so few serious musicals like this make it out of Broadway into a national tour. Most end there on the Great White Way. Or limited tours, like Next to Normal, which never came to Dallas. This is a musical that focuses on pure emotion. It forces us to view within ourselves, what would we have done if we were in Francesca or Robert’s shoes?
Dallas audiences don’t know how lucky we are that DSM President/Manager Director Michael Jenkins and DSM booked this tour to stop here. Because when will you ever get to see it again? Especially with two leads that have the same blinding stage presence and talent that Stanley and Samonsky possess?! It runs through February 14, so talk about the perfect date night than seeing this romantic musical on Valentine’s day!
This stage version is a million times better than the film, believe me! I was much more emotionally invested in the musical than the film. This is a musical that shows with staggering success how great the art of musical theater can be.
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY
Dallas Summer Musicals
Playing through February 14, 2016
Single tickets start at $20 (pricing subject to change) at www.DallasSummerMusicals.org by phone at 1.800.514.ETIX (3849) and at The Box Office, 5959 Royal Lane, Suite 542 in Dallas, TX. Groups of 10 or more receive a 15% discount, priority seating, and many more benefits. Please call 214.426.GROUP (4768) or email Groups@DallasSummerMusicals.org
Dallas Summer Musicals’ highly anticipated 2015-2016 Season will continue with DSM’s production of Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID, March 11-27, 2016; WICKED, April 20 – May 22, 2016; RAGTIME, May 24 – June 5, 2016; BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, June 14-26, 2016; and closing the season will be 42ND STREET, June 28 – July 10, 2016. Dallas Summer Musicals Management Group, Inc. will also present the Broadway hit musical MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET, February 27 & 28, 2016 for a limited engagement.
Choose Your Own Package for any three DSM 2015-2016 season shows, starting as low as $54*, are now on sale online at DallasSummerMusicals.org and by phone at 214.346.3300. They can also be purchased at The Box Office, 5959 Royal Lane Suite 542 Preston Royal Shopping Center. *Price does not include processing fees; WICKED requires a Mini Pack purchase of 4 or more shows.