It has taken a mere six years for ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ to be produced in Australia. Based on the novel by Robert James Waller, it premiered on Broadway in 2014 winning two bTony awards for Best Original Score and Best Orchestration. The book as well as the movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep were also hugely popular.
Nevertheless i wondered if passionate romancer would be appropriate in this time of cynicism, disillusionment, bush fire shellshock and corona virus panic. During the Great Depression and World War 2 musicals were escapist, light hearted and comedic. ‘Bridges Of Madison County’ is not that type of work..
The story is set in Winterset in Iowa in 1965. Francesca has been brought from Naples as a war bride for Bud and has been a dedicated farmer’s wife with two teenage children and Bud constant in his affection for her. Bud and the two children Michael and Caroline go to the state fair to display Caroline’s prize steer leaving behind Francesca who was reluctant to go with them.
During their absence a dashing and handsome National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid has come to Winterset to document the nearby seven covered bridges. As a result of asking directions to a seventh and last bridge, the two fall madly in love and have a torrid affair in the absence of Bud and the children. Their profound mutual love was to have consequences well after the four days that they spent together.
I thought the musical was going to be a soppy Mills and Boon pot boiler. However, the drama, committed performances and the glorious musical choruses had me totally engrossed.
The play revolves around Francesca’s conflicted feelings, of, on the one hand, duty and on the other hand passion.
As Francesca, Kate Maree Hoolihan is utterly convincing in.her torment, transmitting it to the audience through a glorious golden voice.
There must also be a credible evolving chemistry between Robert and Francesca that rapidly bursts into flame and that is engagingly achieved by the lead performers.
Stenlake’s lustrous baritone harmonises with Francesca’s lovely vocals to create beautiful duets throughout the show.
Ian Stenlake’s performance as the world weary, soulful globetrotter photographer is reminiscent of performances by some of the great Hollywood romantic leads such as Robert Redford and Paul Newman
Anton Berezin as Richard ‘Bud’ Johnson also possessed a magnificent singing voice, evokes a strong, pitiable response from the audience.
Zoe Ioannou as Caroline and Grady Swithenbank as Michael, the Johnsons’ teenage children, give energetic and boisterous performances with an appropriate narcissism and self absorption that makes them completely unaware of the intense adult emotions swirling around them. Once again, as with all of the cast, their vocal performances were strong.
With such intense emotions pumping through much of the musical, there must be a valve of light relief and this was effectively delivered by Beth Daly as Marge and Michael Beckly as Charlie, the Johnston’s caring neighbours.
Beth Daly brings the country and western feel into this rural setting contrasting with Hollihan’s subtle Italian accent. At first a comic stereotype as a nosy neighbour Marge becomes surprisingly loyal to Francesca adding shades of warmth and wisdom to her performance.
Michael Beckly’s Charlie is the funniest character in the play who drawls like a country bumpkin yet dispenses humorous pearls of wisdom. Beckly gives a very fine comic performance.
Beth Daly combines with Katie McKee on guitar to perform a lively state fair hoedown complete with dancing fiddle played by Tracy Lynch., Demonstrating her variety of acting and vocal skills, McKee also doubles us as Marian, Kincaid’s former lover and Chiara, Francesca’s promiscuous sister.
Another vital element in this production is the striking set design by James Browne. Each scene folds and unfolds like a giant origami giving the production a cinematic feel with the lighting designer Phoebe Pilcher providing appropriate illumination. to give atmosphere to the variety of feelings on display.
Threading his way through this maelstrom of activity is the director Neil Gooding who, in a way, has created this turbulence yet at the same time winning nuanced performances from his players.
Sound designer Alan Lugger, particularly in the chorus numbers, creates a harmonious wall of sound that soars over the audience.
The 1950’s and early 1960’s were a time in the United States of suffocating moral restraints. Costume designer Anna Gardiner has created a wardrobe for the characters that is an echo of these times.
During that time films of Douglas Sirk challenged those restrictions with heroines who crossed these lines and ended up suffering intensely. Lana Turner and Susan Hayward would play these fallen women and the tone of this production resonates beautifully with Sirk’s mournful laments as mirrored by Francesca’s intense suffering.
This premiere is a wonderful introduction to this musical with the book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.
Mention was made of Broadway Tony’s for Best Score and Orchestration and the band led by Musical Director Geoffrey Castles playing piano, Tracy Lynch on violin, cello by Claire Kahn, Michael Napoli on guitar and drums Charlie Kurthi produced a sound that almost replicated a full symphony orchestra and gave wonderful support to the vocal gymnastics of the performers.
I questioned at the beginning as to the appropriateness of this production at this time.
With its committed performers, marvellous score and orchestration, this enthralling production is an antidote for troubled times. You have until the 5th April to see this glorious work of musical theatre and for further details http://www,hayestheatre.com.au