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Milwaukee native Nathaniel Stampley shines in 'The Bridges of Madison County'

Shortly after her husband and two teenage kids leave for a four-day sojourn at the state fair, a lonely Iowa housewife named Francesca sees a stranger pulling into her driveway. The neighbor she’s chatting with on the phone tells her to beware of salesmen trying to make a fast buck. The housewife isn’t worried; as she says to her friend, “I already have everything I need.”

But as played by Kathy Voytko in the regional premiere of “The Bridges of Madison County” – adapted for the stage by Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) and Marsha Norman (book) and directed at Lincolnshire’s Marriott Theatre by Nick Bowling – it’s already clear that Francesca needs much more than she’s getting, two decades after leaving her native Naples as a war bride.

Yes, husband Bud (Bart Shatto) and her frequently quarreling kids (Brooke MacDougal and Tanner Hake) love and need her. But Bud is focused on the farm; the kids are growing up and beginning to pull away. Francesca’s own needs are largely unacknowledged; her onetime girlhood dreams are unfulfilled.

If you’re among the whopping 60 million who’ve purchased the 1992 Robert James Waller novel from which this musical was adapted – or if you saw the 1995 film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep – you know what happens next.

The mystery man pulling into Francesca’s driveway is no salesman. He’s a drifter and photojournalist from Seattle named Robert Kincaid, and he’s in town to photograph Madison County’s famous covered bridges. Robert asks Francesca for directions; by the next night, they’re in bed. The night after that, Robert is begging Francesca to skip town with him.

Waller’s book is mawkishly written and borderline unreadable, but its popularity suggests what the much better film and musical versions confirm: Francesca can dub an unknown man like Robert the “patron saint of Iowa housewives” because his ability to listen and observe (he’s a photographer, after all) appeals to the many women for whom marriage devolves into a long loneliness.

As movingly played by Milwaukee native Nathaniel Stampley, Robert is also more tentative and vulnerable than Waller’s mythic cowboy; Stampley’s Robert isn’t a player but a loner. Meanwhile, Voytko’s Francesca is more feisty and funny than her original, even if we never lose sight of her underlying sadness. She’s disappointed, not desperate.

As a result, Stampley and Voytko’s performances add a bit of balance to this torrid relationship. Brown’s spectacular, operatic score, well sung by both principals despite the great demands it makes on both, does the rest.

Brown’s lush, string-soaked pastiche – ranging from Bach to country and deliberately embracing rather than shying away from the melodrama in Waller’s story – allows the improbabilities in Norman’s underwhelming book to drop away. Stampley and Voytko have great chemistry; when they sing together, we can believe they might really cross the bridge joining all that divides them.

Set designer Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s actual bridge is abstract: a raised, rectangular platform with collapsible latticed wood. Ensemble members, including younger versions of Francesca herself, dance across it in pas de deux suggesting all the roads she herself didn’t take.

... It’s the central love affair that makes this musical sing; it’s Voytko and Stampley who make every note ring true.