Waller detractors, and there are many, view the book as 224 pages of awkwardly written, sentimental mush. Yet Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman saw something stageworthy in the story of a life-altering, four-day affair.
Although their show had a relatively short, 137-performance run on Broadway in 2014, Brown won Tony Awards for his score and orchestrations, and deservedly so. This score by the man who created the music for “Parade,” “The Last Five Years,” “13,” “Songs for a New World” and other shows is exquisitely beautiful.
Slow Burn Theatre artistic director Patrick Fitzwater and his creative collaborators have plumbed every bit of the musical beauty, unexpected passion and sorrowful sacrifice inherent in the Brown-Norman “Bridges of Madison County,” which runs through Feb. 4 in the Amaturo Theatre at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
Although Norman hasn’t excised all the Waller cheesiness with her script, Fitzwater and company have crafted a memorable production that is visually striking and overflowing with those thrilling moments when great voices are expressively interpreting great music.
The story, “Bridges” fans may recall, revolves around Francesca Johnson (Anna Lise Jensen), an Italian war bride living on an Iowa farm in 1965. Life with her ex-G.I. husband, Bud (Mark Sanders), their teen son, Michael (Kyle Kemph), and daughter, Carolyn (Julia Dale), has settled into a routine of cooking, cleaning, farm chores and refereeing the kids’ frequent squabbles. But when the rest of the family leaves for a national 4-H competition in Indianapolis, Francesca’s world is turned upside down.
Robert Kincaid (Cooper Grodin), a National Geographic photographer who has come to Iowa to shoot Madison County’s covered bridges, knocks on Francesca’s door to ask directions to the one bridge he hasn’t managed to locate. In that moment, two lonely people discover each other, and before long they surrender to an affair that could change their futures.
Brown’s score, richly rendered by a nine-piece onstage orchestra led by musical director Eric Alsford, is stylistically varied as it mixes ballads, country-flavored music, the remembered sounds of Francesca’s native Naples and almost-operatic songs that demand great range and finesse.
For this cast, which features four Equity actors in leading roles, that isn’t a problem. Jensen, who previously worked with Grodin in Zoetic Stage’s “Sunday in the Park With George,” is simply superb as Francesca. Speaking English with a soft Italian accent that suggests Francesca’s origins and her years in America, Jensen opens the show singing “To Build a Home.” Delivering the character’s back story in that single song, Jensen’s extraordinary voice intertwines with the orchestra in such a way that more sensitive audience members will feel tears welling at the sheer beauty of the sound.
Grodin, who toured in the title role in “Phantom of the Opera” and is up for a best actor Carbonell Award for playing artist Georges Serraut in “Sunday in the Park,” speaks with a slightly odd accent that doesn’t fully convey Robert’s origins as a Texan. But his voice, as he sings the show’s many solos and duets (“Temporarily Lost,” “Wondering,” “The World Inside a Frame,” “Falling Into You,” “Who We Are and Who We Want To Be,” “Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles,” “It All Fades Away,” “Always Better”) is a sublimely expressive dramatic instrument.
As great as the leads are (and they are), the rest of the Slow Burn cast delivers excellent solo and ensemble work. Mark Sanders makes Bud a regular guy frustrated by his son’s ongoing teen rebellion and not quite oblivious to the fact that his beloved wife isn’t herself since he left with the kids on the road trip. His performance alongside actor Michael Cartwright, who plays the Johnsons’ neighbor Charlie, as the two sing “When I’m Gone” is one of the show’s great numbers.
As Charlie’s wife, Marge, Margot Moreland reminds one and all that she’s one of the region’s finest musical theater performers. She’s in comedic mode as the nosy neighbor, then she magically morphs into a radio singer to belt “Get Closer” as Francesca and Robert slow dance in the Johnsons’ rustic kitchen. Leah Sessa gets a couple of showcase moments, too, first as Robert’s younger ex-wife chronicling their failed relationship as she sings “Another Life,” then as Francesca’s wild sister, Chiara, who believes she had the better life in Naples.
Kemph and Dale are boisterous and in fine voice as the Johnson kids, and Jeanine Gangloff tears into the country tune “State Road 21/The Real World.” Kimmi Johnson, Ann Marie Olson, Aaron Atkinson, Matthew Korinko and Rick Peña contribute rich ensemble work.
Visually, as noted, Slow Burn’s production is a thing of beauty. Michael McClain’s set suggest the endless vistas of Iowa farm country as well as a lived-in farmhouse and, with three archways that create perspective, the bridges Robert has come to photograph. Lighting designer Thomas Shorrock turns the set into an ever-changing work of art, suggesting daylight, dawn, dusk and a night sky full of twinkling stars. Peña dresses everyone in period costumes that express style, place and class. And sound designer Rich Szczublewski strikes the right balance between the orchestra and the singers.
Audiences seem to be deeply moved by Slow Burn’s production, and if you’re not one of those who considers Waller’s story to be a romance novel wallowing in what might have been, you’ll probably be touched by “The Bridges of Madison County,” too. Certainly, the quality of what Fitzwater and company have put on the Amaturo stage is top-notch.
“The Bridges of Madison County” is running through Feb. 4 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday (additional matinee 1 p.m. Jan. 31). Tickets cost $47-$60. To order, call 954-462-0222 go to BrowardCenter.org.