A handsome stranger forever changes the life of an Italian-born Iowa housewife in “The Bridges of Madison County,” a gloriously romantic heartbreaker of a musical written in 2014 by composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown (“Parade”) and librettist Marsha Norman (“The Secret Garden”) based on the 1992 best-seller by Robert James Waller. As evidenced in its sublime regional premiere at the Schuster Center courtesy of the Victoria Theatre Association’s Premier Health Broadway Series, “Bridges,” set in Winterset, Iowa in 1965 and the following years, remains an impactful, fascinating and complex study of desire.
While her husband and children participate in 4-H festivities in Indianapolis, Francesca Johnson anticipates four days of personal downtime from the frenzy of cooking and cleaning. But her seemingly mundane world is turned upside down by the unexpected arrival of Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer on assignment to capture the historic bridges in the area. Robert’s decision to ask Francesca for directions, and Francesca’s willingness to oblige, sets in a motion a palpable whirlwind of conflict. Even Francesca’s well-intentioned neighbors become curious about what’s going on in and around her home. Ultimately Francesca and Robert’s unbridled attraction, bolstered by the possibility of a life together, is crushed by the sheer reality of Francesca’s devotion to her family.
Brown, seen last month in concert at the Victoria Theatre, duly won Tonys for his incredibly passionate, quasi-operatic, choral-soaring score and sweeping orchestrations. In fact, his compelling score, an impressive departure from anything he has written in his usual pop/rock vein, offers some of the finest romantic tunes heard in an original musical since Adam Guettel’s 2005 masterpiece “The Light in the Piazza.” Ravishing songs such as “Falling Into You, “Before and After You,” “One Second and A Million Miles,” and “It All Fades Away” are among the magnetic, introspective numbers revealing the full depth of emotion simmering within Francesca and Robert’s infatuation. In flavorful contrast, Brown winningly provides country/folk and blues numbers for additional characters such as Francesca’s blunt husband Bud and nosy neighbor Marge. Norman, expanding Waller’s template, sufficiently brings more clarity and focus to Bud, Francesca’s children Michael and Carolyn, and the Winterset community as a whole in addition to Francesca’s life in Naples during World War II (stunningly brought to life in the poignant musical flashback “Almost Real”). She oddly rushes the action in Act 2 as characters age and decades fly (the same can be said of her Tony-nominated libretto for “The Color Purple”), but it is not a detriment.
An absolutely revelatory Elizabeth Stanley, a spirited comedienne in many musical comedies from “Cry-Baby” to “On the Town,” delivers one of the most dramatic and vulnerable performance of her career. From the captivating opener “To Build a Home” to the spine-tingling finale “Always Better,” Stanley, possessing a firm Italian dialect and rivaling Kelli O’Hara who originated the role, creates a masterfully nuanced portrait of a woman longing for new love, new awakenings, and a renewed sense of self. An astutely understated and rugged Andrew Samonsky, appealing to the eyes and ears, delicately navigates Robert’s yearnings as not to appear too forward or needy in his pursuit of Francesca. Samonsky’s heartfelt rendition of “It All Fades Away” notably cuts deep with aching epiphany considering the palpable chemistry established with Stanley. Terrific featured roles are offered by Cullen R. Titmas (a no-nonsense yet caring Bud), Mary Callanan (a delightfully earthy Marge especially in the bluesy “Get Closer”), David Hess (Marge’s devoted if underwritten husband Charlie), John Campione (a commanding Michael), Caitlin Houlahan (an endearing Carolyn), and Katie Klaus (excellently versatile as Marian/Chiara/State Fair Singer).
Director Tyne Rafaeli’s skillfully recreates original director Bartlett Sher’s strikingly seamless, community-driven staging complete with omnipresent townspeople silently observing scenes on each side of the stage. Danny Medford’s fluid movement, Michael Yeargan’s simple, suggestive sets, Catherine Zuber’s fine period attire, Donald Holder’s exquisitely evocative lighting design, and musical director Keith Levenson’s marvelous orchestra, amply spotlighting thrilling strings and soulful guitar, heighten the allure of this top-notch, Broadway-caliber tour.
It’s safe to say “Bridges” is primarily familiar due to the lovely strengths of its 1995 Academy Award-nominated film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Still, the intoxicating beauty of Brown’s career-defining score is enough to catapult the material into a refreshingly different dimension that will leave you breathless.
“The Bridges of Madison County” continues through March 20 at the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets, Dayton. Act One: 75 minutes; Act Two: 55 minutes. Performances are Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25-$92. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit www.ticketcenterstage.com.