In my eyes, writer/composer/musician/Broadway legend Jason Robert Brown can do no wrong. His music is flawless, and his Twitter feed is always entertaining. Until a few days ago, the only Jason Robert Brown show I’d actually seen live was The Last Five Years (which also happens to be one of my favorite musicals of all time), but thanks to Artistry MN, I can now add The Bridges of Madison County to that list!
The Bridges of Madison County is a 2014 musical based on Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel and the subsequent 1995 film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. The book is by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics are by my personal lord and savior, Jason Robert Brown. It tells the story of Francesca Johnson (Jennifer Baldwin Peden), a native Italian living on a farm in Iowa with her husband Bud (Charlie Clark) and two teenage children, Michael (Ryan London Levin) and Carolyn (Alyson Enderle). Francesca is home alone for several days while the rest of her family attends the state fair. While they are away, National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Eric Morris) knocks on Francesca’s door seeking directions to one of the county’s bridges. The two have an immediate connection and struggle to come to terms with their feelings for each other given the drastically different lives they’ve already built.
I have some mixed feelings about this show, but I’ll start with the positive. This cast is mind blowing. There literally isn’t a weak link in the bunch, and it’s not a small cast. I found myself particularly taken with the show’s supporting characters, like Bud, Carolyn, and next door neighbors Marge (Wendy Short-Hays) and Charlie (Fred Mackaman). Peden and Morris are total powerhouses, and absolutely give them credit where credit is due. But main characters like that can sometimes overshadow the rest of the cast, and that certainly isn’t the case here. Down to some of the one-and-done characters, like Robert’s ex-wife Marian (Becca Hart) who appears only briefly, this cast has some outstanding vocal chops.
But it isn't just the Artistry stage that's overflowing with talent in this show, it's also the pit. The score of this show is crazy beautiful (p.s. I love you JRB), and the orchestra brings it to life flawlessly. Their sound is rich and full, at all times on-par with the awe inspiring vocals. Conductor Anita Ruth and her musicians were the perfect pit orchestra. They filled the theater with audible magic without missing a note or a beat, but they never once overpowered the performers. As a former pit musician myself (I mean, in high school, but it still counts), those folks have my utmost respect and admiration.
I was also really impressed with the set. I don’t often mention sets in my reviews, but I am a huge sucker for a good set. It does so much to really bring the audience into the story! The Bridges of Madison County set is beautiful. From the Johnsons’ kitchen to the titular bridges, the stage was colorful and warm and captured the vibe of life on a farm extremely well. Throughout the show, members of the ensemble weave in and out of scenes, moving cars and beds across the stage with unreal ease; those things have to be heavy! Even if the props themselves aren’t heavy (although I’ve got to believe they are), there are often two grown people sitting on them while they’re moving. But the cast makes it look easy, smoothly gliding the props around the stage. Resident scenic designer Rick Polenek definitely outdid himself on this one, and it was not lost on me!
Ok. Now for the negatives. I didn’t feel any chemistry between Peden and Morris at all. A friend who came to the show with me mentioned during intermission that it didn’t even occur to her that they were interested in each other until they started kissing. Obviously she had no background about the plot whatsoever coming in, but I don’t think she should’ve had to in order to understand that two characters are supposedly falling in love. I knew going in that Robert and Francesca would be romantically involved, but I was surprised when they started singing about their feelings for each other because I didn’t realize that their conversations up until that point were supposed to have been flirtatious. I mean, they were literally talking about fennel and Robert’s ex-wife. Not exactly great fodder to get the sparks flying. And yet, all of the sudden, Francesca was buying a new dress and singing about their incredible connection.
On top of not totally believing the romance, I don’t think I’ve ever disliked two main characters in a play as much as I disliked Francesca and Robert. Of course, this is a criticism of the plot and not of Artistry’s production, but I actively rooted against them for pretty much the entire show. These two are naïve, selfish, children! To start, I thought it was kind of odd that Francesca wasn’t going to the fair with her family to watch Carolyn compete in the 4H competition. It would’ve made a bit more sense if there was a concrete reason, like she had an important conflict or someone needed to stay back and take care of the farm, but she literally said that she was just going to sit at home and do nothing. Very supportive… I get that the 4H stuff isn’t really her thing, as is made evident when she openly mocks her child’s hobby in front Robert, but believe me, watching ballet isn’t my dad’s thing, and he was at every one of my recitals. And a bunch of them even fell on Father’s Day. But, whatever, Francesca didn’t go. Which was fortuitous, because now she’s in the perfect position to betray her husband with barely a second thought when an attractive stranger knocks on the door! Hoorah!
And ok, I love a love story as much as the next guy, but was I really supposed to believe that these perfect strangers, one of whom has a husband and two children, who’ve had like, three interactions are professing their love for each other within a couple days? It’s almost insulting as an audience member. I kept thinking to myself that it felt like the musical equivalent of Daenerys Targaryen’s descent into madness in the last season of Game of Thrones – it’s not that I can’t believe this is where we ended up, it’s that I expected some sort of emotional progression to get there! All of this might also feel more believable if Francesca had a mean or inattentive husband. But she doesn’t. Bud has flaws, sure, but he clearly loves her and is thinking of her while he’s away. He calls her with updates a couple times of day and drunkenly gushes about her to a bartender (this was one of my favorite scenes, actually). Also, does she not see any similarities between the beginning of her relationship with Bud and the beginning of her relationship with Robert? Francesca was quickly swept off her feet by tall, strong Bud when they met while he was stationed in Italy during WWII. So she left with him, and apparently now she regrets it. Is she really just going to do the exact same thing with Robert? Does she think that’s somehow going to make her happy?
At one point during the second act, Robert is trying to convince Francesca to leave with him before her family returns. She responds by saying that she can’t leave without seeing them first because the guilt might turn her into someone Robert can’t love. I’M SORRY, WHAT? The reason you don’t want to up and abandon your children is that doing so might make this RANDOM DUDE NOT LIKE YOU ANYMORE? You’re not concerned about the mental health of your kids or the promises you made to your husband? She is so unbelievably selfish, and Robert isn’t any better. There’s a whole song dedicated to detailing what a neglectful husband he was to his first wife. I’m supposed to believe that the reason he treated Marian so terribly is simply because she wasn’t “the one” and not because he doesn’t know how to be a supportive husband? People don’t suddenly transform into perfect partners because they’ve met the “right” person. Being a good partner takes dedication, selflessness, commitment, and a whole slew of other traits that I don’t believe Robert possesses. And you should be able to be good to someone, even if they’re not ultimately the best match for you. I do think people can change, but only if they put in the work. Given that his response to his divorce was to become a reclusive gypsy, I’m not convinced Robert has done so.
There’s not a whole lot more I can say without spoiling the entire plot, but I will say that I know I wasn’t the only person in the audience unimpressed with this story. I heard at least two others saying the same things while everyone was leaving the theater. But, I think it’s worth saying, my friend Annie, who came to the show with me, actually loved it. When I told her that I didn’t like the main characters, she responded, “Neither did I. But I think that’s why I loved it.” Hearing her say that was a good reminder to me that there is value in characters that are harder to love. If the arc of Francesca and Robert falling in love had been more believable, I think I might have been able to get to the point of appreciating their flaws, too. And I know that there are plenty of other people who love this show, as well. Was it for me? Clearly not. But I don’t have any regrets about going because seeing this cast was a huge privilege. I can’t wait to see them all again in shows that I like a little more!
So, to wrap this up, I wouldn’t go as far as to say you shouldn’t go see this. Even if you end up sharing my thoughts about the plot, this is a nearly-Broadway quality production. If you love musicals, I think you should absolutely go see it just for that. And considering that this story has now been told in three different mediums, there are clearly a whole lot of people out there who disagree with me and love this story. You might be one of them! And that would be awesome! My opinion is by no means more correct or valuable than anyone else's, and with a cast this talented, it’s worth your time to see the show and form an opinion of your own.
The Bridges of Madison County is playing at Artistry until Feb. 16.