Covered or Uncovered, These ‘Bridges’ Soar

Having seen the original Broadway production of ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ not that long ago, I was slightly skeptical about how Boston’s first go at it would fare. It isn’t easy to follow in Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale’s magical footsteps, but with its inventive and evocative minimalist set, and the performances of a stellar cast, I found myself even more moved than the first time around. Like the romance of its star-crossed lovers, the show’s Broadway life was cut short much too fast, but Jason Robert Brown’s compelling score was too beautiful not to live on. The SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of ‘Bridges’, thanks in no small part to a perfectly-cast ensemble, proves that this powerful work deserves another telling.

The music is romantic and lush in a way that originally seems at odds with its environs, but when one considers that these characters live mostly in their hearts, their landscape suddenly opens up to the expanses that only love could allow. Their happiness and hope soar in the melodies, their pain and heartache crash in unresolved chords, and by the end of the show, there is such a longing for a happy ending that it can only find expression in a few lingering notes.

That kind of extreme emotion must find delicate fruition in the carefully executed characters of Francesca and Robert, who, judging from a few gasps at the initial instigation of their illicit romance, have an uphill climb to win over the audience with what is essentially an affair, star-crossed or not. There is the moral dilemma of this, but a more basic marital dilemma is expounded upon as well, and for those who found the book too cloying, or the movie too depressing, a relatively-happy medium is reached thanks to the music and the setting. Both serve as a conduit for this difficult treatise on love, and both rely on the performances of the three leads. Thankfully, each point of the triangle is anchored by a powerhouse portrayal, and each propels the story into exquisite territory.

Jennifer Ellis perfectly embodies the transformative journey that Francesca goes through over the four days of the story, beginning as a slightly weary housewife, then reaching into her past and a possible future, taking all the pain and panic that goes along with it, to make her choice. That it is indeed her choice makes her an ironically powerful figure. With such power comes a responsibility – to protect the love she has found – in her family and in her possible soulmate – and she manages to do both, as heartbreaking as it becomes. Ellis deftly navigates the tricky turns of Francesca’s emotional arc, with an endearing Italian lilt and wide-eyed wonder at a world that somehow eluded her but has against all odds come within her grasp. Christiaan Smith channels a buffer and younger Clint Eastwood, but emotes quite a bit more with a powerful baritone that reveals vulnerability and the ultimate breaking of his stoic solitude. The thankless role of cuckholded husband can easily veer into villain or victim, but to Christopher Chew’s credit, his portrayal of Bud hovers directly on the line between the two. That you still don’t know who is right or who is wrong by the end is a testament to all three actors. That you care for them so much is a testament to Jason Robert Brown’s music, and a company and production that works on every level.

Spirited, and surprisingly moving, turns by Kerry A. Dowling and Will McGarrahan give both comic relief and layers of complexity to life at the Johnson farm, and it is the love of a town that may tip the scale in Francesca’s ultimate decision. Brown’s luscious score, under the masterful hand of Matthew Stern, helms this majestic musical ship, and it is a credit to director M. Bevin O’Gara that each detail she elicits works to bring it through the maelstrom that occurs when love and passion meet. The set design evokes the stark, harsh Iowa land, but subtle projections and lighting transport the viewer all the way to Italy, over the ocean, and across the human heart. These bridges form the way we connect the different maps of those hearts, and whether that love is the safe and stalwart bonds of a family and a home, or the passionate thrills of an unknown but destined lover, the act of choosing love is always better.

{‘The Bridges of Madison County’ is playing at the SpeakEasy Stage Company in Boston through June 3, 2017.}

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