For anyone who has been lucky to truly ever love with a kind of desperate passion that infuses meaning into life, “The Bridges of Madison County” resonates in ways oftentimes beyond the capacity of the senses. Although ideal circumstances of love are desired, the reality of situations can be strewn disorderedly; meaningful love doesn’t always arrive at an opportune time without barriers to union. When an inseparable bond comes unexpectedly, or as a reminder of what could’ve been or what may be lost, it challenges the human condition insofar that the once-easy questions about ethics and morality are no longer answered with facile confidence. That is the one dilemma that casts an impassioned pall over “The Bridges of Madison County.”
The storied trajectory of “Bridges” goes back to 1992 when the novel, which quickly became a bestseller, was written by Robert James Waller. Three years later, Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood took on the roles of Francesca Johnson and Robert Kincaid, respectively, and caused millions of people to sob in movie houses around the world. And since 2013, up until now at the Ahmanson Theatre, running through January 17th, audiences have continued to be enthralled by the musical version of this masterwork thanks to playwright Marsha Norman and composer Jason Robert Browne.
The musical, which began at the Ahmanson on December 8th, is handled with subtle expertise by a cast that never rests on stage even during moments of physical inertia. The psychology of “Bridges” is powerful, sometimes too overwhelming at times despite the common sense of the inevitable lurking.
The leads, marvelously played by Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky, anchor the musical with careful aplomb. Stanley encapsulates the housewife character of Francesca with an empowered fragility, underscored by heart-sweeping operatic arrows that compel sympathy for a woman who left Naples, Italy for the barren land of Iowa upon meeting a stationed American soldier, Bud Johnson (played by Cullen R. Titmas). Having become a mother of son Michael (Dave Thomas Brown) and daughter Carolyn (Caitlin Houlahan), Francesca becomes tied to a foreign land that does not stimulate or resonate with her.
Of course, that changes when out-of-town National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid sees Francesca and inquires about taking photos of the Roseman Bridge. Samonsky embodies Kincaid flawlessly with a smooth cadence to his lines and verses. It is a difficult line to walk, as well, given that too much smoothness would result in Kincaid becoming unlikeable, but it is just the right amount – with a dash of vulnerability thrown in – that presents Kincaid as the panacea that becomes Pandora’s Box for Francesca.
Suddenly, and without notice, sparked by Italian-bred hospitality, Kincaid sees in Francesca what he has never had (e.g., a home-cooked meal), and Francesca rediscovers the adventure she left behind in war-tattered Italy that took her Italian fiancée-to-be as collateral.
Though the answer, as plain as it may seem, is not that easy. Sure, Francesca could leave her family for a life of excitement but, surprising as it is, her husband and children have become an inextricable part of her identity as a human being. We not only sense the love heaped on Francesca by her sometimes troublesome and exasperating offspring (excellently portrayed by Brown and Houlahan), but even from her quirky neighbors (played uproariously by Mary Callanan and David Hess).
More so, Francesca’s husband, notwithstanding a lack of cultural nourishment, is well-intentioned. Titmas does a wonderful job of conveying this and the breadth of humanity to the character of Bud Johnson with fervent singing that demonstrates how strongly Bud feels about his family, perhaps no less significant than what Kincaid feels for Francesca.
Thus, when Francesca ultimately chooses between Kincaid and her family, the audience is not upset or let down, but rather understanding.
The musical, poignantly powered by a terrific cast, is very highly recommended.
For more information, go to https://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/bridges-of-madison-county/