Love is always better. But what if you choose the path of love in hopes of escape? A simple girl, bereft of her fiancé from the war, desperate to escape Italy takes the first American GI that comes along and settles a life in farm-country Iowa. She tends the husband, raises two children, and cooks the dinner. They say a picture is worth 1,000 words; what then must the photographer who takes that picture be worth when he shows up like a breath of fresh air disrupting her routine, stirring awake her senses, and reinvigorating a passion she believed she’d left behind long ago in Italy? The Bridges of Madison County paints just that picture as it makes its regional debut at Red Branch Theatre Company this 2017 season. Directed by Clare Shaffer with Musical Direction by Paige Rammelkamp, this strikingly beautiful musical tale— based on the novel by Robert Kames Waller— paints a picture indeed worth more than 1,000 words; it paints a picture of love, life, and loss, the inherent journey of the human being over time.
Despite the impressive frame-up, quite literally a tilted picture frame that adorns the front of the proscenium space, conceptualized by Scenic Designer Jacob Cordell, the minimalist approach to scenic design causes somewhat of a disruption to the show’s natural flowing grace and tranquility. It isn’t that there needs to be more scenery or things to showcase the interior of the house or the bridge once they get there, but rather what is there needs to be moved with more care and awareness. Often the scenic changes are happening as a song comes to an end or is getting underway and the scraping of furniture, the bumping and clunking of objects can be readily heard despite the music and especially in the stillness. This pulls the audience out of the beautifully constructed world of the play, taking the focus away from the moving story and the delightful performers telling the tale. Director Clare Shaffer falls short on correctly utilizing the 8-person cast to shift the furnishings about here, ultimately providing a disservice to what is otherwise a strong and impressive production.
Illuminating the moments of emotional excitability are Lighting Designer Lynn Joslin’s forte. Especially during the sunrise and sunset moments at the bridge, with the cross-hatch shadows appearing along the sides of the house and across the stage to create the illusion of standing at and under the covered bridge; these are quite striking and at times, breathtaking effects. Joslin’s design falls somewhat short in her implication of the silhouette-scrim play, though this is really only noticeable during the opening moments of the show. The lights are not focused properly creating a blur in the silhouette, making them fuzzy rather than sharp, and showing them out of sync to the movements happening in front of the, though this could be partially on the shoulders of the Light Board Op for that particular performance.
While there isn’t much to be said for the costumes or the choreography, both are pleasant and fit within the working constraints of Shaffer’s vision, there is a mound of praise coming to Musical Director Paige Rammelkamp. Taking just eight individuals and giving them the sound of nearly two dozen, inspiring vocal strength during full ensemble numbers like “You’re Never Alone” and “When I’m Gone”, Rammelkamp achieves the impossible with this impossibly small cast. The blends are harmonious, the melodies are strong, and Rammelkamp even successfully overcomes the challenges of volume balance in the intimate staging for the majority of the production.
There may not be a whole lot of singing for Marge (Gillian Shelly Lawler), though she does get a really smooth and almost sultry— but in a pleasant summer’s evening’s breeze sort of way— solo for “Get Closer to You”, Lawler is the comedic relief for this production in a fashion most sincerely earnest. The way she insists on spying and putting her two cents in is just iconic when it comes to the busybody type of character that Marge is. Lawler is full of panache and personality and plays well against Brian Lyons-Burke, who plays Marge’s devoted husband Charlie. Lyons-Burke has an almost deadpan response to some of the absurd little moments that Lawler’s character goes up on, complimenting her comedic skills flawlessly with his exacting delivery. With a surprisingly robust voice that is reserved until nearly the end of the production, Lyons-Burke delivers heartily his half of “When I’m Gone”, making his voice heard.
A twinkling gem amid a sky full of stars, Chani Wereley takes up the triplicating roles of Marian, Chiara, and the State Fair Singer. Though the latter of these three characters is featured in the hilariously upbeat “State Road 21/The Real World” number which kicks off the second act, and her portrayal as Chiara is a saucy “dancing-only” sort of character, Wereley is best praised for her time spent as Marian. It’s just one song, just one moment, but so painstakingly perfect in both its emotional connection and vocal delivery that it stops the production and swells the heart simultaneously. Wereley is richly invested in this number, fabricating the character’s pain into something nearly palpable; this tragically beautiful performance of “Another Life” is a show-stopping moment not easily forgotten.
There are of course other moments worth noting, primarily the relationship of true sibling rivalry between Michael (Carson Collins) and Carolyn (Victoria Meyers). While neither character is giving much solo song time, both Collins and Meyers make the most of what their characters’ have to work with. Having featured solos during “State Road 21/The Real World” the audience is treated to their combined vocal prowess as well as a hint of insight into their characters’ storylines. The characters of Michael and Carolyn are left intentionally underdeveloped by Librettist Marsha Norman, as they’re in the periphery of what’s really happening between Francesca, Robert, and Bud, but both Collins and Meyers find unique ways of creating depth to these children, giving them a lively existence on the stage.
Emotional depth and expressivity may not be Bud’s thing, as he is but a simple Iowan farmer, but they are most certainly Chad Wheeler’s thing. Taking the character of Bud and fleshing him out into a multi-dimensional human being, rather than the shallow and static character that Norman penned him to be, Wheeler finds deep emotional currents running through the layers of Bud and uses the music of the show to connect to those currents, bringing them readily to the surface. “Something From a Dream” is where it is most readily experienced, though again in shadows and echoes during his portion of “When I’m Gone.” There is also a comedy to Wheeler’s Bud, making both his interactions with the kids and with Francesca often humorous.
What do you call a man like Ryan Burke? Versatile? Such a simple word hardly seems to fully ensconce what he’s capable of in the role of Robert Kincaid. Talented? Again the word seems ordinary, lacking in depth when it comes to the sounds he makes, the feelings he expresses. So what do you call a man like that? Extraordinarily gifted, sounds about right, well-fitting the bill when it comes to Burke’s portrayal of the photographic journalist. Exceptionally understanding falls in line with his approach to the persona of Robert and how it fits into the overall story of The Bridges of Madison County. There is more than an honesty to the way he presents Robert Kincaid; there is a vulnerability that is readily present right from his first sung moment, “Temporarily Lost.” Burke breathes life into his character, not only when singing, but when interacting with Francesca (Erin Granfield.) “The World Inside a Frame” is revitalizing and passionate, coming quickly on the heels of the tear-jerking “Wondering.” Burke has well in hand the complexity of this character, both vocally and emotionally, and makes the story a reality for everyone watching.
Erin Granfield has spectacular consistency with the Italian affectation she cases over her spoken and sung English. There is something to be said for the way she carries the accent into her singing voice, authenticating the songs in a way that feels true to the character’s origins. Granfield covers the full story arc of Francesca, from “To Build a Home” through to “Always Better” and hits all of the emotional peaks and valleys along the way. There are minor and extremely infrequent warbles in pitch, only when Granfield goes to sustain a higher note, but these readily fall away from the attention of the audience because of how exposed her emotional connection to the character is.
Ultimately a moving and sweet production, though the story itself is a bit overdone, Red Branch Theatre Company’s production of The Bridges of Madison County is a strong one, marking an excellent regional premiere for the show.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission
The Bridges of Madison County plays through October 14, 2017 at Red Branch Theatre Company at the Drama Learning Center— 9130 Red Branch Road in Columbia, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 997-9352 or purchase them online.