It is remarkable how music and its emotional uplift can elevate a story. A case in point is Robert James Waller’s potboiler best-selling romance novel, The Bridges of Madison County, which became an only slightly less gooey film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Yet in the hands of composer-lyricist Robert Jason Brown, this steamy tale of an affair between an Iowa housewife and a National Geographic photographer becomes a captivating portrait of unexpected love between soulmates.
The stage musical landed on Broadway in 2014, where it was widely praised yet only lasted there less than three months. That makes the show ideal for the original mission of Fort Lauderdale’s Slow Burn Theatre Company, which was created to produce underappreciated material, reconceived and removed from the expectations of Broadway.
On this show, however, director-choreographer Patrick Fitzwater does little in the re-conception department. Frankly, his Bridges of Madison County is closer in look and tone to the New York production than any Slow Burn version in memory. But his casting is impeccable, particularly with the selection of Anna Lise Jensen and Cooper Grodin as the Italian war bride and the tall, dark, hunky stranger who fills the void of what has been missing in her life. And while adapter Marsha Norman has expanded the roles of Francesca’s family and neighbors, the central leads remain the crux of the musical, handled here by two of the best voices in the region.
Jensen and her expressive soprano captivate us from the beginning, with a bare stage solo full of exposition and longing. She sings of meeting her husband Bud during World War II and relocating to a solid, satisfactory, but passionless life in the American Midwest. As it happens, Bud and their two teenage offspring are conveniently heading off to the state fair and Francesca is looking forward to some alone time.
She certainly never expected an intrusion into her settled life like Robert Kincaid, freelance photographer on assignment to shoot the county’s iconic covered bridges. Unable to locate one of them, fate has him drive to her farm house and into her life in search of directions. When Francesca goes with him to the bridge and they begin to sense a mutual attraction, she invites him to stay for dinner. And despite their better judgment, he stays for four days as a genuine romance blossoms.
That is about all there is to the narrative, It is, after all, a thin, quick read of a book. But fleshed out by Brown’s soaring, heart-on-its-sleeve score, it makes for a very satisfying evening of theater through which audience members of both genders can identify or at least fantasize.
Compared to such recent winning productions as Hunchback of Notre Dame and Titanic, Bridges is a small undertaking. But Fitzwater lavishes four Actors Equity performers and a superb nine-piece orchestra – led expertly by Eric Alsford, using Brown’s original, Tony-winning orchestrations – on the show.
Fitzwater has surely been scouting talent at Zoetic Stage, where Jensen was a sublime Clara in Passion and Grodin is currently Carbonell-nominated for his Georges Seurat in Sunday in the Park with George. Both are now making their Slow Burn debuts and, from this exposure, will surely be in high demand at other South Florida companies.
The other two Equity performers are Mark Sanders and Margot Moreland as Francesca’s stalwart, but unexciting husband and her nosy, but supportive neighbor. They each get a solo in the more-democratic-than-necessary score, though they handle the tangential numbers well. Other standouts include tiny Julia Dale as Francesca’s daughter and Leah Sessa as Robert’s former wife.
Michael McClain’s set relies on lots of simple scenic fragments, which are wheeled onstage by the cast, and a series of large frame pieces which majestically descend from the fly space to suggest the covered bridge. Curiously, Broadway set designer Michael Yeargan is not acknowledged in the Slow Burn program, though the costumes coordinated by Rick Pena are noted to be based on Catherine Zuber’s original designs. The Iowa landscape is transformed expertly by Thomas Shorrock’s lighting, which details emotional moods and the passage of time.
With a few points off for lack of originality, this production of Bridges is an impressive achievement for Slow Burn. If you have not yet discovered this company, this would be an excellent time to become familiar with their work, as well as Brown’s scores, some of the best on Broadway in recent years.
THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, Slow Burn Theatre at the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater, 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Through Sunday, Feb. 4. $47-$60. 954-462-0222 or visit www.browardcenter.org..