Williamstown Theatre Festival's 'The Bridges of Madison County': Love finds fertile soil in Iowa farm country

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WILLIAMSTOWN -- "The Bridges of Madison County," the haunting new musical that is having its pre-Broadway premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival, begins quietly and ends quietly.

That special hum you feel and hear in between, however, is the recognition -- as this remarkable theaterwork dances its way across WTF's Main Stage -- that you are in the company of something quite rare and quite special.

"The Bridges of Madison County" is not simply a musical adaptation of a hugely popular novel. In its impressively theatrical way, playwright Marsha Norman and composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown's musical redefines Robert James Waller's novel, and the hugely popular film that was from it, on its own terms.

"The Bridges of Madison County" begins on a virtually bare stage. Isolated in a faint spotlight at the rear is Francesca (an absolutely luminous, deeply affecting Elena Shaddow) -- a bit tentative, restrained, by design, at the start of the show's opening song, "To Build a Home." She gathers strength and position on stage as she narrates, in song, her journey from her home in Naples to this farm in Somerset, Iowa, circa 1965, where she has made a home for herself, her farmer husband, Bud (insightfully and touchingly played by Daniel Jenkins) -- an American soldier she met in Naples at the end of World War II -- and their two teenage children, Carolyn and Michael, within a community that has accepted her, taken her in. The action on stage also picks up as the dark backdrop erupts into a vast flat Iowa landscape, with a silo and some trees on the low horizon and at, a night sky filled with stars that go on forever. And all around there is community, people moving purposefully on and off the stage taking and bringing with them various scenic elements. That sense of community never leaves the stage, even when there are only one or two people on stage. Various members of the ensemble sit impassively on either side of the stage -- bearing witness, present.

"You mean the homes appear empty but the people are there?" Robert Kincaid (a powerful and deeply touching Steven Pasquale in terms of both his acting and his singing), a National Geographic photographer who has lost his way, literally and figuratively asks Francesca as she explains the character and texture of Somerset.

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As "Bridges of Madison County" begins, Francesca and Bud have been married 21 years. She has done well by Bud. He has done the best he knows how to make a good life for her.

Francesca has friends -- chiefly her next-door neighbor, Marge (a wonderful Cass Morgan -- devoted, caring, protective) and her husband, Charlie (perfectly played by Michael X. Martin), whose groundedness and wisdom is directly complements Marge's neighborly impulsiveness and curiosity.

And yet, there is an empty space in Francesca. On both a broad and intimate scale, that notion of space, how empty places are filled, goes right to the heart of "Bridges of Madison County."

So when Kincaid comes up her driveway looking for directions to the last of the covered bridges he is photographing on assignment for NatGeo, Francesca is Iowa hospitable and helpful. But with her husband and children away for four days to compete in the steer competition at the Indiana State Fair, Francesca finds herself responding to Robert in unexpected ways. They are patient, respectful, probing, but there is no denying the inevitable and they fall into a deeply passionate, consequential affair that, for a fleeting moment, holds the possibility of a future that, deep down inside, frightens Francesca as much as it excites her.

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This is a deeply moving story told with compassion, respect and understanding and it's been directed and staged with Prosperolike grace and command by Bartlett Sher who synthesizes all the theatrical elements at his command into a brilliantly choreographed evening that rolls on its impressive momentum and never stops -- literally and figuratively -- for one second of its wholly involving nearly three-hour running time.

Jason Robert Brown has furnished a remarkably sophisticated, complex, full-bodied score that is both as expansive and as intimate as the story he, Norman and Sher are telling. Brown has scored his music for an all-string / percussion orchestra; no brass; no winds. Brown's songs play into Norman's book often by filling in narrative background but mostly as expressions of thought and feeling that are too large, too deep, too profound to be left to the spoken word.

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This adaptation places Francesca squarely at the center and Shaddow is more than up to the challenge with the kind of perfectly modulated performance that is all in the service of character. Pasquale matches her note for incredible note, emotion for wrenching emotion.

"The Bridges of Madison County," in the end, is a profoundly moving love story about two decent people -- one an immigrant woman looking to fulfill a life she has longed to live but hasn't; the other, a man whose on-the-go life has made it easy for him to stay within himself, not get involved, do what he does best and then move on.

Over the years Francesca and Robert move on but they are never far removed from one another.

And we will move on from "The Bridges of Madison County." At the same time, it will never be far removed.


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