First came the novel by Robert James Waller, then the film starring Meryl Streep, and now, a sweeping operatic musical by Jason Robert Brown. SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of The Bridges of Madison County, which ended its Calderwood Pavillion run on Saturday, proved that some stories are meant to be sung. Elegantly directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, with music direction by Matthew Stern and choreography by Micha Shields, the production turned what could be an overblown melodrama of regret and unrequited love into a musical meditation on womanhood in rural Iowa in the 1960s.
Bridges tells of a brief affair between World War II bride Francesca and the itinerant Robert, a National Geographic photographer who visits Madison County to take pictures of its famous bridges. While her husband and two children are away for four days at a fair, Francesca, an immigrant from Naples, embarks on an emotional journey from a woman quietly but ruefully accepting her place as wife and mother, to someone recognizing her alienation from the life she wishes she hadn’t inhabited. Against the backdrop of nosy neighbors and the far-off county fair, we see Francesca and Robert’s affair as a study in contrasts: the worldly and rootless Robert and the constrained, tethered Francesca, both dissatisfied with their lives, are both initially unwilling to admit the pain caused by their individual geographies.
There are two stars in this production. The first is Jason Robert Brown’s multi-genre score, which switches from lush romanticism to classic 1960s popular love song, and from country dance number to a surprisingly chromatic recitative. Stern’s pit, performed by a reduced chamber ensemble (the 2014 Broadway production had a larger string section, which made a substantial difference) played with sensitivity across musical idioms. Cellist Javier Caballero, whose opening solo ‘aria’ began the work in lieu of an overture, soared with assurance and depth of color.
The second star was the splendid Jennifer Ellis in the starring role as Francesca. Ellis brought pathos and a graceful sophistication to a musically and dramatically demanding part. She maintained her Italian accent beautifully, and she conveyed her arias with perfection, exact intonation and astounding breath control across a large ranging tessitura. Her emotive singing matched delicate choices with the script, never overselling Francesca’s travails, yet still making clear to us that her character’s decisions never came easily. Providing strong support to Francesca’s inner resolve, Christiaan Smith’s Robert really came into his own in his final aria “It All Fades Away.” Again, what could be oversold as melodramatic pap became a controlled and nuanced outpouring with judiciously applied vibrato and clean, clear phrasing.
SpeakEasy’s minimalist set—two small tables and some chairs—became everything from a truck to a porch swing. Projected images of the spaces outside the Johnson’s farm house gave us the world beyond the characters’ immediate experiences, such as the swirling ocean Francesca traveled across to reach America, and in a later scene an expansive cloudy sky. A wooden wall with wainscoting-like verticals formed the backdrop. Cut on the diagonal, it became 2 big triangles, suspended and also offset in terms of depth. The ensemble inhabited the stage and the area immediately around it by contrasting stillness and indecision in brief frozen tableaus with the busy-ness of chores that make up an active rural life. Alessandra Valea who played the dual roles of Marian (singing with assured refinement as Robert’s ex-wife) and dancing as Chiara (Francesca’s silent sister) shone in Shields’s choreography, moving about the stage with brio: stylish but never audacious. Vocally outstanding, the ensemble gave impressive short solos and well blended singing. After a somewhat rocky start, Francesca’s husband Bud (Christopher Chew) flourished in Act II alongside his neighbor Charlie (Will McGarrahan) in “When I’m Gone”.
Attending the last night of a long run leads sometimes negative expectations. Perhaps the cast will be tired, the voices lackluster, the emotional intensity missing. I am pleased to report that such was not the case. This polished and thoughtful production, though peppered with brief comic moments, also disclosed unexpected but gratifying musical shifts. While Broadway might have the funding for a higher level of panache, the careful pacing and refinement of a chamber production such as SpeakEasy’s should not be underestimated. I look forward to seeing what the company does in 2018 with its next musical, Allegiance.
Georgia Luikens is a violinist who holds undergraduate degrees in music and English literature from the University of New South Wales. She has a Masters in musicology from Brandeis University where she is a doctoral candidate.