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A Lovely, Beautifully Acted and Sung Story

When life feels so confining that it’s like being in a prison, and then suddenly an opportunity presents itself to enjoy a bit of unexpected freedom and a bit happiness, the inability to resist is understandable. This romantic, picture perfect 2014 musical, by respected book writer Marsha Norman and famed Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”), was adapted from Robert James Waller’s popular 1992 novel. The book had been transferred into a much-loved film three years later that starred Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. On Broadway, Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale won the hearts of audiences as main characters, Francesca and Robert Kincaid.

This bittersweet love story is about a caring woman named Francesca, a middle-age Italian war bride, who’s been living an unfulfilling rural life in Madison County, Iowa. Although married to Bud, her loving farmer husband for the past 18 years, Francesca longs for her family and homeland before the War, back in Naples, Italy. When Bud takes their two teenage children, Michael and Carolyn, to Indianapolis, to enter their steer in the 4-H Fair, Francesca chooses to stay at home. She plans to enjoy some relaxing peace and the quiet of the empty house.

The same day her husband and kids leave on their road trip, Robert Kincaid drives his blue pickup truck into Francesca’s yard. He’s a world-traveled National Geographic photographer, assigned by the magazine to Madison County to shoot photos of the county’s famous covered bridges. Robert asks Francesca for directions to the seventh, difficult-to-find destination and, after giving him a glass of refreshing ice tea, she offers to personally show him the way the Roseman Covered Bridge. It’s at the location that Francesca first finds herself becoming attracted to this artistic, sensitive adventurer.

Upon returning to the farm, Francesca discovers that Robert has traveled to and photographed her hometown of Naples. Although he doesn’t have any of the photos with him, they reminisce about Italy and Francesca tells Robert about her currently quiet, respectable life as a wife and mother in a small farming community. She insists upon cooking him dinner while they share more of each other’s lives. Robert talks about a wife who left him and Francesca describes the flatness of the land, a metaphor for her life.

The following morning, while Francesca shops for a new dress, Robert is busy photographing the Roseman Covered Bridge. Suddenly, Francesca unexpectedly surprises the handsome photographer at work; Robert, in turn, surprises her with the magazine that contains his photos of Naples. Through her tears, Francesca confesses to Robert how much she misses her home and Paolo, her first boyfriend, who lost his life in the War. Soon their attraction turns into love and a simple friendship becomes much more.

Nick Bowling’s delicate direction of this lushly romantic musical is reminiscent of the kind of earthy, emotional stories he often guides so perfectly toward realization at TimeLine Theatre. Set in 1965 Iowa, this production radiates with both time and place. It’s an honest narrative, accompanied by a beautiful score, that’s alive with real people and warmed by the kind of love and longing for personal happiness that each of us desperately desires and deserves.

Bowling’s cast is, in a word, superb. As Francesca, lovely Kathy Voytko, who resembles a young Patti Lupone, has one of the most beautifully trained voices to be heard at the Marriott. In addition to her gorgeous, crystal-clear soprano, Ms. Voytko has the kind of expressive face on which, without ever speaking a word, entire stories are told. In this leading role, she makes a welcome return to the Lincolnshire stage to star in the role Ms. Voytko was born to play.

Audiences fell in love with him as Cervantes/Don Quixote in Marriott’s “Man of La Mancha,” and, with his rich, full baritone vocals, Nathaniel Stampley is once again breaking hearts as Robert Kincaid. Although Stampley’s photographer is a rugged man’s man, and seemingly content as an artistic loner, he sees in Francesca everything that’s been missing from his life. Through Stampley’s expressive voice, face and posture, audiences will find empathy with this gentle, caring man who finally finds the yin to his yang.

In supporting roles, Wydetta Carter supplies her bold, sassy humor to Marge. She brings her own special brand of sultry, bluesy style to her rendition of the crowd pleaser, “Get Closer.” Making his Marriott debut, Bart Shatto plays Bud with a pleasing vocal styling and just the right balance of gruffness and affection. Although Shatto spends most of the musical sharing the stage with his two teenage children (nicely played by Brooke MacDougal as Carolyn and Tanner Hake as Michael), his moments with Francesca show a love and devotion that his Iowa farmer simply doesn’t quite know how to express. As Charlie, Marge’s easy-going homesteader husband, Terry Hamilton is an agreeable and affectionate counter to his saucy, smart-mouthed wife.

The musical’s gifted ensemble consists of Shea Coffman, Phoebe Gonzalez, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Danni Smith, Brandon Springman, in several roles. In addition, Emily Berman is featured as Marian, Robert’s estranged wife, who accompanies herself on guitar with the stirring, “Another Life;” while Allyson Graves and Nick Cosgrove are absolute poetry in motion as young Francesca and Paolo.

Jason Robert Brown’s resplendent score, infused with soaring operatic passages, mixed with a smattering of folk, country and pop, comes from the musical direction of multi-Jeff Award-winner, Ryan T. Nelson, and the ten talented musicians of Patti Garwood’s pit orchestra. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s multilevel scenic design, complete with a creative suggestion of the actual covered bridge, is peppered with hidden cupboards and cabinets and a bed tucked away beneath the surface. It also features an abundance of weathered barn wood along the theatre walls that surrounds the audience. In addition to creating the right tone, the wood provides a textured backdrop for Anthony Churchill’s moving Iowan projections. Employing a earth-tone palette, Sally Dolembo’s rural costumes feel authentic and especially well-worn, and Jesse Klug beautifully lights the playing area with sunshine and moonlight.

This heartbreaking musical, which was short-lived in its original 2014 Broadway debut, is now enjoying its regional premiere this summer in Lincolnshire. It’s a lovely, beautifully acted and sung story that taps into something each of us has probably experienced: the road not taken. How would anyone respond if given a chance to go back and try the other route, to experience a life that’s more exciting, enriching and romantic? This mellifluous, melancholy musical taps into one woman’s moving memories of her past will live in the theatergoer’s heart far beyond the final curtain.

Highly Recommended