Searching for an Italian Iowan

Theatre Review: The Bridges of Madison County

Madison County

By Perry Tannenbaum

The problems with this show really began before the first note. I’ve never read The Bridges of Madison County nor seen the movie that was adapted from Robert James Waller’s bestseller. What I vaguely remembered was that it centered on an Iowa housewife who was beguiled by a charismatic photographer, and that Meryl Streep was that housewife romanced by Clint Eastwood in the movie.

But I never knew she was Italian. So when Elizabeth Stanley began to sing as Francesca in the touring version of the Broadway musical, I only intermittently understood a word that she was saying. None of those words, unfortunately, was Napoli. Albany, Cleveland, and Osceola, yes I understood those, but by then I’d missed the boat.

Even when I caught on to the idea that this Iowa housewife was Italian – and what the target accent was that I needed to decipher – it was of little use when Stanley sang. The James Robert Brown lyrics were hopelessly pureed even though the James Robert Brown music was quite lovely.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a touring Broadway show so thoroughly massacred by its leading lady.

On the other hand, Andrew Samonsky was all of the lanky dreamboat you could hope for as Robert, the easygoing National Geographic photographer who bounces around the globe with his camera and tripod, hunting down the perfect light and angle for every scenic subject. When Samonsky says Stanley is beautiful, you can momentarily believe it.

I’d seen Samonsky seven years ago as a moody, racist Lt. Cable in the Broadway revival of South Pacific, and I could see why director Bartlett Sher wanted him back. Now his hair has grown long, the mellow opposite of the tightly wound Cable. Even on Broadway, you rarely hear a voice of such astonishing clarity and power. No struggle at all to get to the core of Robert’s restless, yearning soul.

Noisy kids, snoopy neighbors, and a humdrum husband all circle around the vortex of the great Francesca-Robert passion, swelled to Broadway size in the Marsha Norman book but not really overstuffed. We don’t feel like we’re watching a big Broadway extravaganza at Knight Theater. Scenery by Michael Yeargan has the spare fantasy feel of the dream sequence from Oklahoma, and Brown’s orchestrations have a matching classic simplicity, thinning out at times to a lone piano or even a cello.

So for the music and the soulful Samonsky, the trip to Madison County may be worth it. But before you go, it would be wise to catch hold of Francesca’s lyrics on the cast recording. If your Spotify subscription allows you to punch the lyric tab, that’s the quickest way.

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