Great Singing, But 'The Bridges of Madison County' Falls Short

Who doesn’t love a good love story? Apparently no one, considering the track record of success enjoyed by this property. Originally written as a novel by Robert James Waller, it stayed on the New York Times’ bestseller list for more than three years. Then it went on to more success as a movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Then it became a Broadway musical.

And that is the version, written and composed by Jason Robert Brown with a book by Marsha Norman, which is now on stage at the Lakeland Civic Theatre at Lakeland Community College. Francesca Johnson is an Italian war bride who came back with the American soldier named Bud, to live with him and raise a family in Iowa. But on one fateful day in the 1960s, Bud and the kids hike off to the state fair to try to win a blue ribbon. That’s when a sexy visitor named Robert stops by the house to ask Francesca for directions. He's photographing covered bridges in the area for the National Geographic magazine, but once he spies Francesca he screeches to an f-stop and focuses on her.

There ensue multiple songs that graph the relationship between Francesca and Robert. So let’s make one thing perfectly clear: One could not ask for a more beautiful musical rendering of this show, since the two leads, Trinidad Snider as Francesca and Shane Patrick O’Neil as Robert, deliver Brown’s evocative songs with power, tenderness and deep feeling. Indeed, the entire cast under the well-crafted musical direction of Jordan Cooper has a chance to display their estimable vocal talents in a number of genre-varied tunes.

Had this been a concert, this review could end here quite happily. Unfortunately, it’s theater and it must be said that, on the acting side of the equation—particularly with regard to the love story—this production falls short of the mark. Snider and O’Neil never seem to be swooning head-over-heels for each other, as their early physical stiffness lingers throughout the proceedings.

Since director Martin Friedman is a consummate professional, and quite adept at staging many different types of American musicals, one must rack up this failing to the mystery of stage chemistry that sometimes never comes to a boil…or even a simmer. The scenic design by Trad A Burns is an impressively faithful, if oversized, recreation of the ribs of a covered bridge, but it tends to dwarf and confine the performers, further reducing their impact.

Fortunately, those in supporting roles all sing splendidly and otherwise do what they can to enliven the show. Scott Esposito strides about purposefully as Bud, and Amiee Collier and Brian Altman craft an affecting portrait of neighbors who are a bit nosy but good-hearted. Collier, equipped with binoculars and a fierce curiosity, lends the show some much-needed levity. Frank Ivancic and Anna Barrett bicker nicely as the Johnson kids, and Amanda Tidwell fills in deftly in multiple roles.

However, this is a love story and one yearns to feel that hot, visceral, untidy emotion come spilling out over the footlights. Instead, this production of Bridges is brilliantly crooned but way too bloodless in the clinches (ie. after their first night together, we see Robert and Francesca in bed and the sheets aren’t even messed up!). That won’t win a “Gettin’ Busy” blue ribbon at any state fair.

The Bridges of Madison County
Through February 19 at Lakeland Civic Theatre, 7700 Clocktower Drive, Kirtland, 440-525-7134.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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