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Five of Five Stars for Bridges

★★★★★ I must confess, after doing some research on the musical version of the film “The Bridges of Madison County”, I doubted that it would be one that would hold my attention, let alone, be a play that I would give five stars to, but, guess what? It is terrific! The movie, which starred Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep was indeed a “chick flick” so I never saw it. I did speak to several fans about it as well as the novel by Robert James Waller. The musical version has a book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and does manage to follow the film story fairly close. It is the ending, which I will not give away, that is different, and extremely well done!

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it takes place in rural Iowa in 1965. We are on a farm that is operated by Bud (Bart Shatto) and his Italian wife, Francesca (amazing performance by Kathy Voytko) who, although she appears to be happy with her life, has been displaced from her previous life-style, causing her a great deal of boredom and melancholy. Her husband and children, Michael (Tanner Hake) and Carolyn (the adorable Brooke MacDougal) are off to the 4-H finals in Indiana. Carolyn has raised a steer that is competing for the honor of “steer of the year”.

Francesca, who is a sort of “war-bride” who had always wanted a life of excitement and travel has somewhat adjusted to her farm living and loves her family with all her heart, but after her family heads off to Indiana, a stranger drives up her driveway and her life changes forever. The stranger is a photographer, who is on assignment by the National Geographic Magazine to do a photo-shoot on the seven bridges of Madison County. He is unable to find the seventh, the Roseman Bridge, so he is asking directions. Robert (deftly handled by Nathaniel Stampley) needs to find this bridge to complete his story, so Francesca decides to drive with him to ensure he does not get lost. While they are doing the photo shot, one can see the heat and chemistry between these two start to blossom. Here, a loner, who has never found the woman to make him happy, and a woman who left a war-torn country to come to a safer place, but feels no excitement, find one another and the sparks are quite obvious.

Finely directed by Nick Bowling, who has proven over and over that the musical is where he is happiest and who truly understands how to bring a show to an “arena” stage, this is an amazing production that some might call a “Chamber Musical” instead of a musical theater production. There are a great number of musical pieces and each one does propel the story-line, but, I for one, prefer to call this a musical (to be safe). The musical numbers, for the most part, will ring true to the telling of the story, but I doubt that you will be humming anything as you leave the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. The songs are amazing: "To Build A Home” (which is like an overture), “What Do You Call A Man Like That”, “Look At Me”, “Get Closer”, “Falling Into You”, “Who Are We?”, “When I'm Gone”, "It Al Fades Away” and the final song, “Always Better".

My research showed me that the musical play ends on a bit of a different note than the book and movie, and I suggest you bring a small packet of tissues as this is certainly a THREE TISSUE SHOW. We get to watch her decide her road, see what happens to her family and to her lover... this is a strong, powerful love story that shows how unhappy people might find something that can change their life, but, in the long run, may not run away from that they have already chosen. I will telly you that while you might not be humming any of Brown’s music as you leave Lincolnshire, the impact of the words he has written and the haunting tunes will have you wanting more...

This is an unusual production for Marriott due to the very small cast. They, for the most part, have an ensemble of twenty or so actors, but this production only has 15 total. The ensemble members are Emily Berman (who does a magnificent job with “Another Life”), Shea Coffman, Nick Cosgrove, Brandon Springman, Danni Smith, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Phoebe Gonzalez and Allyson Graves. There are two other actors in this production - the neighbors, Marge (the incredible Wydetta Carter) and her hubbie, Charlie (always reliable Terry Hamilton) who seem to always know what is going on...

Being an in-the-round stage sets are not always easy to create, but in this case, Jeffrey D. Kmiec has proven one can do a lot with very little. The center stage area where a bed comes out of the floor and the Bridge itself comes up from the stage, choreographed by William Carlos Angulo, using the brilliant ensemble creates a warm feeling. The lighting (Jesse Klug) and sound (Robert E. Gilmartin) along with the costumes (Sally Dolembo) and props (Sally Weiss) make this show as close to perfection as a theater company can get.

The music provided by The Marriott Orchestra, conducted by Patti Garwood has nine musicians sounding like a 28 piece orchestra. There are also some amazing projections (Anthony Churchill) allowing us to get a visual idea of the lives this family lives. As the ending of this story is slightly different from where you might think it is headed, I tread lightly on telling you much more about the story. It is a major production with great heart and soul. The acting is first-rate as are all the tech aspects of the production. The story may not end as you would want to see it end, but rest assured, the ending on the stage at Marriott serves the audience as it should. The music is “folk” and “Americana” and the voices are rich and melodic. As stated earlier, you will feel a tear (at least) or two dripping down your cheek, so be prepared.