Based on the bestselling novel by Robert James Waller, Broadway’s Jason Robert Brown brings music and lyrics to a love affair in the middle of Iowa. Suddenly Madison County starts to seem like a very exciting place to visit at least for two unlikely strangers.
An adulterous affair isn’t the normal main plot of musicals but the audience soon buys into Francesca’s (Elsa Matthews) sense of an unfulfilled life with a good but boring man, with a headstrong farmer’s personality. Francesca, an Italian war bride won over and brought to America by Bud Johnson (Robert Stineman) soon realizes she left her heart in Naples. A roving photographer named Robert, (Derek Basthemer) walks into the life of the somewhat comfortably married yet vaguely dissatisfied Francesca and leaves her shaken, stirred and forever changed.
So how does an all too familiar 4-day love affair set to music end up on Broadway? Take a successful movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep set it to music by an award winning composer( Jason Robert Brown) and earn several 2014 Tony nominations for your work and a popular musical grows legs if only for a few short months.
Media Theatre’s Elsa Matthews and Derek Basthemer sing and act their way into your heart, not particularly for Brown’s memorable music which is not as consistently wonderful as you would hope. This musical weaves a story of country living and values with a sense of freedom, fulfilment and hope that is blindly bound by unexpected love. Matthew’s songs consist of expectations despite the realistic acceptance of captivity and through it alll her voice simply soars! Wisconsin born Basthemer, making his Media debut, has far less to gamble on his new found love affair which takes him by surprise as well. The fated lovers are near perfect together.
Artistic Director Jesse Cline keeps the sets to a bare minimum to focus the plot and action on the two star crossed lovers. Cline makes effective use of projection screens. A simple yet clever diversion of traveling together on a country road is displayed by a solo front two-seater of a truck with the dirt roads rolling behind as the two trade opening stories and pleasantries.
For those unfamiliar with this story; Francesca’s husband Bud and his two noisy boisterous teenagers Carolyn (Anna Rosenthal/Molly Sorenson) and Michael (Gianni Palmarini, making his first professional appearance), head to the State Fair for a long weekend to compete for a winning title for Carolyn’s prize steer. Robert Kincaid (Basthemer) has been assigned by National Geographic magazine to take pictures of Madison County’s covered bridges and finds himself a bit lost looking for the seventh bridge. With time on her hands and a stranger at her door looking for direction, the story begins. While the story is a bit less seductive and premeditated than Fifty Shades of Gray…more like Fifty Shades of Vanilla, it quickly warms up as the chemistry lesson begins in the kitchen of Francesca.
The script by Marsha Norman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author labors to introduce a sense of the goings on of the town folk of Madison County; the birthplace of actor John Wayne. Act one seems to drag a bit with idle chat and friendly encounters, as we all can figure out where this is heading, with the exception of Francesca’s neighbors Marge and Charlie (played by the likable Faith Yesner and Nick Saverine ) as she speculates cutely on what’s going on next door. But Act two simmers into a full boil with a string of passionate numbers “One Second & A Million Miles” and a smartly staged “When I’m Gone.”
Basthemer tenor voice is brilliant, even breathtaking! His “It All Fades Away” tops the evening and the company finishes with a winning “Always Better,” led by Matthews giving it her all. Clearly it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
BRIDGES OF MADISION COUNTY plays at the Media Theater- State Street, Media Pa. For tickets and more information visit www.mediatheatre.org or call 610.891.0100
Photos: Courtesy of Media Theatre