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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Bridges of Madison County

"I learn to speak. I learn to sew. I learn to let the longing go."
— Francesca, "To Build a Home"
Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky. (Photo credit: Matthew Murphy: )
For the second time in 20 years, an adaptation of Robert James Waller's bestselling novel The Bridges of Madison County has improved upon the original source material. For the 1995 film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, we can primarily thank Meryl Streep. For the musical adaptation, currently on its national tour at the Ahmanson Theatre, the laurels belong largely to composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown.

The feat is not so much that Brown has crafted a series of sweeping power ballads that a tale like this so clearly needs. He has. By the time National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid and Midwest housewife Francesca Johnson are in full clinch mode, Brown's score ensures that there will be plenty tears shed and bosoms heaved. Still, Brown's achievement with Bridges is a score that is as insightful and literate &emdash; particularly in the first act &emdash; as it is swoon-worthy. A score this good has no business buttressing a property this schmaltzy. But it does, and Ahmanson audiences are doubly fortunate that the composer himself is conducting the orchestra for Bridges'L.A. run.

The Bridges tour has plenty of other elements in its favor. These include a lovely and sensitive performance by Elizabeth Stanley as Francesca, some elegant technical magic (most notably Donald Holder's lighting) and the sensitive direction of Bartlett Sher (recreated for the tour by Tyne Rafaeli) tying the entire effort together. Sher, Brown and book writer Marsha Norman frame Waller's tale not just as a story of circumstance-crossed lovers, but also as an examination of the benefits and limits of a community. In the hands of a different set of creators, Bridges might have been a three-character chamber piece. Or, saints preserve us, an opera.

As it is, Bridges wants to be intimate and introspective in some places, grandiose in others, which does not always make for an easy balance. The play is at its most engaging while Andrew Samonsky's Robert and Stanley's Francesca are still feeling each other out, while the mystery is still unfolding, and &emdash; to a lesser extent &emdash; after he leaves. Put another way, The Bridges of Madison County is perhaps one half of a great musical.

The action begins with the gentlest of touches. Against a backdrop of open space (the scene is Winterset, Iowa in 1965), a plainly dressed housewife and mother explains via song how she got there. An Italian immigrant who married a soldier, Francesca settled in a small, unexciting community where she adapted, had children and made a life for herself. All of this Francesca lays out in the richly detailed opening song "To Build a Home" while the ensemble brings the scene-establishing elements of that home (designed with evocative simplicity by Michael Yeargan) into place.

Stanley evokes calm, perhaps a touch of weariness, but certainly nothing resembling smoldering dissatisfaction. The accent is spot on; the humor is wry. Francesca may have had dreams (we'll learn about those later), but for now, her life is devoted to two teen-agers and a husband. They are bound for a state fair in Indianapolis, leaving Francesca home alone for probably the first time in a decade.

The husband and kids are given nuance rather than broad strokes. Son Michael (Dave Thomas Brown) is restless and not thrilled at the idea of one day running the family farm. Daughter Carolyn (Caitlin Houlahan) knows that something is missing in her mom's life, and that Francesca's is a life Carolyn doesn't want. Francesca's husband Bud (Cullen R. Titmas) will end up calling his "Franny" several times over the course of the week to check in and give her progress reports on the fate of Stevie, Carolyn's steer.

The hours Francesca planned to spend reading catalogs are interrupted by the arrival of Robert Kincaid, a taciturn photographer who is in town to shoot the city's famous covered bridges. Francesca gives Robert directions to the last bridge on his agenda, accompanying him to insure he gets to see it before sundown. Later she cooks him dinner. Robert has recently shot photos in Francesca's native Naples, and these two out of place souls &emdash; one uncomfortably moored, the other always on the move &emdash; start peeling back each other's layers. Francesca opens more easily than Kincaid, a closed book of a man who politely tells Francesca "I have to warn you I'm not going to be very good company." Of course, he's quite wrong.

Norman pulls the focus away from Francesca and Robert's inevitable romance in some rather interesting ways. The Johnsons' neighbors, Charlie and Marge, have a clever dynamic that breaks them out of Fred and Ethel mode. Positively nothing will ruffle Charlie (played with some very nice wit by David Hess) while Mary Callanan's Marge is a busybody with a good heart. Just as effective is a flashback appearance by Kincaid's ex-wife to provide some back story on Robert via "Another Life," quite possibly the best song in the show. Performing the number beautifully, Katie Klaus quietly breaks our hearts.

Sher has reassembled his go-to technical team — Donald Holder (lighs), Catherine Zuber (costumes), and Yeargan (scenery)— all of whom are every bit in synch creating this world. From a visual perspective, The Bridges of Madison is a tale of long roads and wide open spaces, a tale in which scenic beauty is to be found only in dreams and memories. But when Holder's perfect dying light falls across that bridge (beautifully created by a series of descending arches), the scene is suffused with magic.

Our two leads are both attractive, charismatic and possessed of voices with enough muscle to get through the power ballads. The romantic and sexual heat generated between Stanley and Samonsky, while certainly present, is less interesting than their psychological connection. Unlikely though it seems, this Francesca and Robert clearly "get" each other. Stanley handles Francesca's blossoming with a delicate touch, and we witness how much the pull between safety and passion is costing her. Samonsky allows Robert's layers of rugged mystery to fall away. The character has to spend the bulk of the second half head over bucket in love, and smitten certainly becomes him.

Without Brown's score, however, this show is little more than a staged Harlequin romance. The southland has been fertile territory for Brown shows, with strong productions of his Parade and The Last Five Years coming through in recent years. In a bit of touring programming irony, The Bridges of Madison County's engagement at the Ahmanson overlaps with the run of one of its 2014 Tony Award competitors, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's If/Then currently at the Hollywood Pantages. So we have an Iowa-set what-if scenario squaring off against Idina Menzel asking the same question in the heart of the Manhattan. Let the comparisons begin anew.

For Curtainup's review of the show's New York production which includes a song list go here .

The Bridges of Madison County
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, Book by Marsha Norman. Based on the novel by Robert James Waller
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Cast: Elizabeth Stanley, Andrew Samonsky, Cullen R. Titmas, Marry Callanan, David Hess, Dave Thomas Brown, Caitlin Houlahan, Katie Klaus, Cole Burden, Caitlyn Caughell, Brad Geer, Lucy Horton, Amy Linden, Trista Moldovan, Jessica Sheridan, Matt Stokes, Tom Treadwell, Bryan Welnicki
Direction Recreated by Tyne Rafaeli
Musical Arrangements and Orchestrations/Conductor: Jason Robert Brown
Movement: Danny Mefford
Original Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan
Costume Design: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Sound Design: Jon Weston
Additional Set and Adaptation: Mikko Suzuki MacAdams
Associate Costume Design: Patrick Bevilacqua
Additional Lighting Design: Michael Jones
Associate Sound Design: Josh Millican
Wigs and Hair Design: David Brian Brown
Music Coordinator: Michael Keller and Michael Aarons
Music Director: Keith Levenson
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Production Manager: Hector Guivas
Production Stage Manager: Melissa Chacon
Company Manager: Ryan Parliment
General Manager: Mary K. Witte
Music Director: Keith Levenson
Music Supervisor: Tom Murray
Plays through January 17, 2016 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.  (213) 972-4400,
Running time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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