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Marriott's 'Bridges of Madison County' beautifully brings the page to stage

In May 1993, Oprah Winfrey broadcast her daytime talk show from a location along the Cedar Bridge in Winterset, Iowa, the scenic destination which inspired the best-selling novel by Robert James Waller, "The Bridges of Madison County."

At this point, Oprah had yet to official launch her now famous "Oprah's Book Club."

But her enthusiastic endorsement of "The Bridges of Madison County" to her 8 million viewers pushed its page-turning popularity to new heights. Oprah told Waller, who was a guest on the episode, that his book was "a gift to the country," explaining that both herself, and her pal Gayle King, had cried while reading it. In 1995, Warner Bros. released their film version of the 1992 book with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep as the lead characters. In 2014, a Broadway musical adaptation was unveiled in New York.

Despite all of this exposure, in full disclosure, I must admit that I've never read the book nor watched the movie. Last week, when I attended the opening night of Marriott Theatre's Chicagoland Premiere of this stage story, it was my first time seeing "The Bridges of Madison County" and I'm ready for a return trip.

Playing until Aug. 13, this two and a half hour musical romance vividly captures the characters and picturesque covered bridges of 1965 Winterset, Iowa. This treatment is courtesy of the Broadway creative team that unites the music and lyrics by three-time Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown with the book by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Marsha Norman. Seven-time Jeff Award Winner Nick Bowling is the director helming the Marriott run with musical direction by Jeff Award Winner Ryan T. Nelson

The female lead, Francesca — a beautiful Italian war-bride who misses Europe but embraces her family and marital duties — is played by Broadway talent Kathy Voytko. Voytko's superb vocals and finely tuned facial expressions and timing rank as big reasons I quickly fell in love with this musical. She is opposite Nathaniel Stampley as Robert Kincaid, the photographer on assignment from "National Geographic," who changes the life of this simple yet complex farm wife forever with the gift of romance and adventure, all because of a chance encounter.

As someone raised in a rural landscape and familiar with life on a farm, it was easy to understand many of the moments and scenes shared in Marriott's clever and well-crafted production of "The Bridges of Madison County." Francesca's husband Bud is played with grit and sincerity by Bart Shatto, and as their children, Tanner Hake as Michael and Brooke MacDougal as Carolyn, show family chemistry. Some favorite moments come courtesy of Wydetta Carter as nosy neighbor Marge, with Terry Hamilton as her husband Charlie, sharing her binoculars through their farmhouse window.

The rest of the talented cast includes Emily Berman, Shea Coffman, Nick Cosgrove, Phoebe González, Allyson Graves, Johanna McKenzie Miller, Danni Smith and Brandon Springman.

Director Bowling and his cast make the most of the available space in this "theatre in the round" setting, including clever and functional set design by Jeff Kmiec, who magically allows for a bridge to emerge and disappear as needed, from what seems to be nowhere. Costume design is by Sally Dolembo and the story moves quickly with the lighting design by Jesse Klug and sound design by Bob Gilmartin, with everything complemented by the projections design by Anthony Churchill and properties design by Sally Weiss. The musical supervision and orchestra are conducted by Patti Garwood.

It's not easy in today's distracting world of hand-held technology to be carried away by a compelling story and feel immersed in feelings and emotions exchanged by characters on a stage. Marriott's "The Bridges of Madison County" achieves audience investment, along with the gift of hope and inspiration about what it means to make life's choices.