No matter how familiar you might be with the story told by The Bridges of Madison County, you will enjoy Theatre Raleigh’s current production, directed by Lauren Kennedy Brady, with musical direction by Nathan Thomas, in Raleigh, NC’s Kennedy Theatre.
I suspect most theatergoers are quite familiar with the story. Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel was a best-seller. The film (directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Eastwood and Meryl Streep) was ranked #15 in Internet Movie Database’s top movies of 1995; it earned a 3.5 (out of 4) star review by film critic Roger Ebert; and Streep earned an Oscar® nomination for best actress. The musical (with book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown) opened on Broadway in February of 2014 and won a Tony Award® for Best Original Score.
The plot has a pattern that I think of as “The Handsome Stranger Love Triangle”:
- A woman is in a comfortable but unfulfilling relationship with a local man.
- She falls in love with a Handsome Stranger (with whom she seems able to find fulfillment).
- About to leave town, the Handsome Stranger coaxes her to come with him.
- She makes a life-defining decision.
In some plays, she leaves town with him (e.g., William Inge’s Picnic). In others, she stays home (e.g., N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker or George Bernard Shaw’s Candida).
The audience has ample reason to desire (and be prepared to applaud) either outcome in this case, and I will not spoil the bittersweet conclusion, except to say that the destiny of every character has been improved by play’s-end.
Francesca (played by Janine DiVita) is an Italian World War II war-bride, brought to this country in the mid-to-late 1940s. It is now 1965, and she has been living this entire time on a farm in Iowa with her husband Bud (Scott Wakefield) and their children Michael (Jack Russell Richardson) and Carolyn (Callie Colvard).
Robert (Patrick Oliver Jones) is a photographer for National Geographic who has come to the area to photograph the covered bridges in Madison County. He has managed to find all but one, and he stops at Francesca and Bud’s farm to ask directions on the day that Bud and the kids have departed for the National 4-H Fair, a trip that will last four days.
These four days are this play’s critical point. The neighboring couple, Marge (Heather Setzler) and Charlie (Jason Sharp), round out the main characters; and there are a number minor characters, all played with zest by Supriya Jaya.
Janine DiVita’s Francesca has the melancholic air of being not-quite-satisfied from the get-go. Her incremental reactions to Robert are so believably gradual, and her passion that grows in intensity is so very real.
Patrick Oliver Jones shows perfect Robert-like characteristics. The character is divorced. He travels from place-to-place doing work that he loves. And everything about Jones’ demeanor supports the character’s eventual statement: “I never come into the world where people belong to one another.”
Both DiVita and Jones deliver their musical numbers with rich, commanding, passionate voices. The perfection of their duets underscores the chemistry that develops between the two. Francesca’s “What Do You Call a Man Like That”; Robert’s “The World Inside a Frame”; and their duets “Wondering,” “Falling Into You,” and “Who We Are and Who We Want to Be” stand out in my mind.
Heather Setzler’s Marge (with her binoculars) is delightful as the concerned, nosy neighbor. By the way: be on the lookout for her to supply a “lasagna-ex-machina” at just the right moment. Marge’s “Get Closer” was one of my favorite songs of the evening.
Scott Wakefield’s Bud and Jason Sharp’s Charlie are exactly what I would expect from Iowa farmers. Wakefield creates a definite dynamic between his character and each of the children. Wakefield’s voice shines in “You’re Never Alone,” but it is his “Something from a Dream” that ranks among my favorites of the evening.
As Michael and Carolyn, Jack Russell Richardson and Callie Colvar show just the right amount of bratty-ness and sibling antagonism. At the same time, we never doubt their mutual brother-sister affection.
As always, Lauren Kennedy Brady’s direction shines. Casting is perfect; pacing and timing are impeccable.
Production values also shine, and I feel compelled to use the words “meticulous authenticity.”
Impressively, scenic designer Rebecca Leigh Johnson has supplied an authentic “skeleton” of a farmhouse (enabling the audience to clearly see all interior activity) and furnished it with period furniture and appliances. I was impressed by the decision to place the bedroom “in the midst of” the band on an upper level and also by the overhead suggestions that the entire action of the play takes place (on a metaphoric level) under the cover of one of the bridges.
Costume designer Dorothy Austin-Harrell has done an equally impressive job of capturing a mid-1960s’ look appropriate for each individual character. Especially noteworthy: while both Francesca and Marge are clothed as one would expect an Iowa farm-wife of that time, every outfit in which the two appear tends to suggest that Marge’s tastes are just a bit upscale from Francesca’s. And the various outfits worn by the various characters portrayed by Supriya Jaya are a smorgasbord of character-defining delight.
Property designer Elizabeth Newton deserves major kudos for her micro-attention to detail. From the rotary dial phone on the wall in the house and the pay phone in a bar to the metal ice cube trays, the transistor radio in Francesca’s kitchen, and the cameras and water canteen carried by Robert, Newton achieves picture-perfect authenticity.
Sound design by Eric Alexander Collins and lighting and projections design by Erich Keil are also spot-on.
The show is captivating from start to finish — an excellent way to spend an evening (or afternoon) in mid-August.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 9th Raleigh, NC BroadwayWorld.com Raleigh BWW Review by Nicole Ackman: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/BWW-Review-Theatre-Raleighs-THE-BRIDGES-OF-MADISON-COUNTY-20190809 and July 30th BWW News Desk video interview with actress Janine Divita: https://www.broadwayworld.com/raleigh/article/VIDEO-Janine-Divita-on-Theatre-Raleighs-THE-BRIDGES-OF-MADISON-COUNTY-20190730; Aug. 8th Raleigh, NC CVNCreview by Roy C. Dicks: https://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=9523; Aug. 8th Raleigh, NC Triangle Arts and EntertainmentTAE Theater Review by Susie Potter: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2019/08/theatre-raleighs-the-bridges-of-madison-county-is-a-timeless-well-told-love-story/; Aug. 7th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://indyweek.com/events/bridges-madison-county-duke-energy-center-august-2019/; Aug. 4th Cary, NC RDU on Stage video interview with composer Jason Robert Brown, conducted by Lauren Van Hemert: https://rduonstage.com/podcast/ep-30-jason-robert-brown-talks-about-his-music-his-shows-and-the-legendary-harold-prince/; and July 22nd New York, NY Playbill.com preview by Adam Hetrick: http://www.playbill.com/article/janine-divita-to-star-in-the-bridges-of-madison-county-at-theatre-raleigh.
Theatre Raleigh presents THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY at 8 p.m. Aug. 9, 2 and 8 p.m. Aug. 10, 3 p.m. Aug. 11, 8 p.m. Aug. 13-16, 2 and 8 p.m. Aug. 17, and 3 p.m. Aug. 18 in the in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theatre in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $35 ($32.50 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel), except $45 Premium Seating in a reserved section).
BOX OFFICE: 919-832-9997, email@example.com, or https://theatreraleigh.secure.force.com/ticket/#/events/a0S61000005W4MDEA0.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-832-9997 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
SHOW: https://theatreraleigh.com/bridges-of-madison-county/, https://www.facebook.com/events/2211634582500139/, and https://www.dukeenergycenterraleigh.com/events/bridges-madison-county-theatre-raleigh.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBrPHqUNhtfRMWQ2Ej8Fxeg.
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PRESENTER: http://www.theatreraleigh.com/, https://www.facebook.com/TheatreRaleigh/, https://twitter.com/TheatreRaleigh, and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBrPHqUNhtfRMWQ2Ej8Fxeg.
The Bridges of Madison County (1992 romance novella): https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0112579/ (Internet Movie Database) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bridges_of_Madison_County (Wikipedia).
The Novel: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Robert James Waller (Fredericksburg, TX-born novelist, 1939-2017): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-James-Waller (Encyclopædia Britannica), https://www.iowacenterforthebook.org/iat/waller (Iowa Center for the Book bio), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/robert-james-waller-496258 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0909077/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_James_Waller (Wikipedia).
The Bridges of Madison County (2013 Williamstown and 2014 Broadway musical): https://www.mtishows.com/the-bridges-of-madison-county (Music Theatre International), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/the-bridges-of-madison-county-494897 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bridges_of_Madison_County_(musical) (Wikipedia).
Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics): http://jasonrobertbrown.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/jason-robert-brown-11446 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm2212346/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jason_Robert_Brown (Wikipedia).
Marsha Norman (book): https://louisville.edu/artsandsciences/about/hallofhonor/inductees/norman.html (University of Louisville College of Arts & Sciences Hall of Honor bio), http://iobdb.com/CreditableEntity/2434 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/marsha-norman-7556 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0635568/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marsha_Norman (Wikipedia).
Lauren Kennedy Brady (director and choreographer and Theatre Raleigh artistic director): http://laurenkennedy.com/ (official website), http://www.ibdb.com/person.php?id=70340 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2757787/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/slaurenkennedy (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/slaurenkennedy (Twitter page), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lauren_Kennedy (Wikipedia).
Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.