SpeakEasy Stage Company does a wonderful job of inviting the audience in to enjoy the close of their 26th season with a gorgeous musical and a stellar cast in The Bridges of Madison County. While the original run of this production on Broadway was short-lived (lasting only 3 months with seasoned performers Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale), the show should be recognized for its musical and storytelling mastery. This production helps remind us of that beauty, and I hope that more companies will join SpeakEasy by giving this beautiful show the care and attention that it deserves.
Set in 1960s in the farming plains of Iowa, The Bridges of Madison County by composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown and book writer Marsha Norman almost needs no introduction because of the wide-acclaim of the book by Robert James Waller and movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. (For more information, see here.)
Upon entering the theater, Cameron Anderson’s set is at once stark and warm, minimal and effective: rooftop-esque pieces evoking the simplicity of farm houses, a clever canvas upon which to paint various backdrops and times. The projection design (also by Anderson) was exquisite, casting a night sky full of stars, then ocean waves, later a sunrise, and, of course, a covered bridge, across the angular canvas.
Warm opening remarks by the Marketing Director Jim Torres created a welcoming, comfortable space inside the intimate Robert Studio Theatre. The atmosphere was set for a nostalgic ride to the wild plains of Iowa for love and bridges.
Opening the show and continuing throughout the two-and-a-half-hour performance, the intimate ensemble created a wonderful blend, using effective unison movements that enhanced the action and conveyed the passage of time. Props to Choreographer Misha Shields whose work created more depth and shapes in the modestly-sized space. An added bonus, because of the sometimes circular motions of the ensemble, individual singers would change direction and therefore project towards and then away from the audience. This carousel-like effect created an undulating kaleidoscope of voices, perhaps an unintended but lovely side-effect of the choreography.
Almost never leaving the stage, Jennifer Ellis’ voice soared as Francesca, equally matched by her layered and nuanced portrayal of an Italian immigrant trying to focus on the American life and family that she has created, while yearning for the passion and life she left behind in Italy. Golden-throated Christiaan Smith was a strapping leading man as Robert Kincaid, a lonely traveling National Geographic photographer brought to town on assignment to shoot the covered bridges of Madison County. While he no doubt looked and sounded the part, I felt Smith’s Robert lacked the depth that the character with whom Francesca would fall in love would need. Ellis and Smith certainly warm up to each other, but the spark was a little forced. Still, the audience falls in love with the lost, brooding artist from the state of Washington whose complexity is matched and understood by the conflicted, homesick homemaker from Italy.
The work of these actors was evidenced in their final songs, a true challenge and testament of the endurance and emotional strength needed to perform such rich works such as this. Robert’s “It All Fades Away” is a big sing: a gorgeous set of long lines that span time. Smith sang effortlessly throughout the show, but his final song felt tired this afternoon, perhaps a character choice of an aging man about to die from heartache, or resulting from pure vocal exhaustion at the end of a long show. Either way, the performance felt unenthused, if safe.
Immediately following, Ellis returns with a heartbreakingly beautiful performance of “Always Better” that is complex and truthful, perfectly voicing the conflict and overarching theme of the show: “It is hard, it is insane to place one love above another. But what a choice! And what a gift! And what a blessing!”
Throughout the show, many ensemble members had their moments. A few more notable performances worth mentioning: Nick Siccone showed well as the increasingly angsty teenager butting heads with his father. His voice was clear, vibrant and strong and deserved his own song, perhaps about bucking his fate as a future farmer. Similarly, Rachel Belleman was a bright spot in the ensemble during “State Road 21” at the opening of the second act. An agile dancer with an equally flexible voice, Belleman was full of life and shined even in her brief moment. Like Siccone, I wanted to hear more from this young talent.
Nosy neighbors Marge & her hubby, Charlie (played perfectly by Kerry A. Dowling and Will McGarrahan) nailed the comic timing as the bored, slightly disgruntled married couple next door. Enthusiastically distracting themselves by spying on their neighbors and gossipping, they find themselves underwhelmed by the status quo of their relationship but still manage to find tenderness in their lackluster, realistic love.
The only downside to the overall performance was the sound. In an already dry space, the micing did not lend itself to support the work of these talented musicians. The singers and instrumentalists alike sounded covered; I yearned for reverb. I was disappointed not to hear the work of Music Director Matthew Stern’s orchestra more fully, especially when the marketing materials often praised the “lush” and “award-winning score” by Jason Robert Brown.
A related concern, minor but worth noting, is that intonation issues from the cast were more than sparse, occurring a few times in leads and a few moments from ensemble members -- but not likely the result of a dearth of vocal ability. I genuinely wondered if the singers could hear the orchestra well enough.
Modest shortcomings aside, this musical delivers a heartfelt and compelling story by performers at the top of their game. Do not miss the chance to sink your eyes, ears and teeth into this gorgeous composition -- and may the run of this golden musical go on a million miles more.
Additional performances through June 3, 2017.
Brian Calhoon is a freelance percussionist and Director of Admissions at The Boston Conservatory, Executive Director for Boston Percussion Group. He performs with his two-man show, Marimba Cabaret. www.briancalhoon.com.