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Marriott creates a lovely musical trip through 'Madison County'

If you want to understand how much one performance, by one inestimably excellent artist, can mean to a work of musical theater, let me suggest a trip to "The Bridges of Madison County" at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. For in that circular, suburban iteration of throbbing, midlife, extramarital passion in the Winterset, Iowa, of 1965, you will find the work of Kathy Voytko and of an actress, living and making a show.

This 2013 musical (the book is by Marsha Norman and the music by Jason Robert Brown) is, of course, based on the best-selling 1992 novel by Robert James Waller, telling the story of an Italian war bride who ran away from home with an American GI from Iowa and soon finds herself in the flat, soul-sucking hinterlands, her youth ebbing with the seasons. Enter a lost, wandering photojournalist named Robert Kincaid. While Francesca's hubby and kids are away at the state fair, and the housewife becomes, ahem, engaged for the weekend. The issue is that she also loves her family as much as this seeming soul mate, a beautiful man who makes her feel young again. What to do, long term?

If you saw the 1995 film (starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood) based on this novel, you likely recall a lush, steamy romance so filled with beautifully photographed images of Iowa's gorgeous covered bridges that it spawned an entire tourist industry for Winterset and its environs. Eastwood did not make an insubstantial film by any means, but it was also very clearly a romance.

On Broadway, where the musical was not a success, the approach was much more serious. The show did not want to be seen as pulpy. (One example: The first romantic song for Francesca and Robert also features the photographer's ex-wife, whose presence does not exactly set the stage for love). On Broadway, the covered bridges had no real visual presence — which I found a strange choice, given the words on the marquee — and Brown wrote a hefty, roots-y score, heavy on traditionally rural instrumentation, that had a very serious patina and was very beautiful in places. There was a real sense of melancholy layered over that production. I think that hurt the show — affairs are supposed to be more fun, especially when vicariously experienced.

...Nick Bowling's production, and especially Voytko and Nathaniel Stampley's performances, humanize things better than was the case on Broadway, and there's no question that Jeffrey D. Kmiec's lovely, multitextured setting is a far superior design for the show. There's even a bridge, center stage, offering at the least the chance of a connection.

Bowling, always a director who prizes honest reality, doesn't condescend to Iowans and you can tell that this production was put together by Midwesterners. In particular, the actors playing the family members who exert such a pull on Francesca are very richly realized: Brooke MacDougal plays Carolyn, Tanner Hake is Michael and Bart Shatto plays Bud, a husband who could easily be a rube but is here a man more trapped by what he knows and can allow himself to comprehend. There is also a lovely cameo from Wydetta Carter, playing the caring neighbor all we urban dwellers wish we had.

For better or worse, what Norman and Brown most wanted to do with this piece was to take you inside Francesca's head, to help you understand the compromises we all must make and the sadness with which we must live. Voytko is along for every mile of that particular ride through Madison County; it's a beautiful piece of work and reason alone to see the show.