That’s the burdening question that Philadelphia Theatre Company confronts with its musical production of Bridges of Madison County. Winner of the 2014 Tony award for Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations, the local reprisal officially opened at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre on Feb. 13 and will be running through March 3.
Based on Robert James Waller’s 1992 best-selling novel which became a 1995 movie, starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, Bridges of Madison County highlights a small Iowa farm town in 1965. All is run-of-the-mill until a National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid (played by Gregg Goodbrod), visits on assignment to shoot the town’s bridges. Unable to find the Roseman Covered Bridge, he pulls up into the driveway of Francesca Johnson (Sarah Gliko), a married Italian immigrant whose husband and two children are out of town at a steer competition.
What starts as directions to the bridge turns into a four day love affair. Not a lust-driven relationship, both Francesca and Robert refind themselves within finding each other. But Francesca must decide on what she will do when her family returns: stay or leave. A nod to the show’s title, is that a bridge Francesca can cross?
Much more than a love story, Bridges of Madison County also taps into the immigrant narrative. Gliko puts on an impeccable performance as a sprightly young woman turned bored housewife, who married an American soldier when he arrived in her WWII destroyed Naples, Italy.
“And the streets were rubble, and the water was filthy, and there were no cigarettes, and no haircuts, and no thinking about the future. And I sat at the harbor, watching the American ships,” Francesca sings in the haunting song, “Almost Real.” “And then I looked up and I saw an American smile down at me, and I knew if I just took his hand, I could at last be free.”
A poignant depiction of the mental toll it takes leaving homeland and family, the middle-aged woman admits she is homesick. “I ran away from home and now I can’t get back,” she tells Robert, but more so to herself.
Robert is able to alleviate some of that sense of loss by showing her his recent photo spread of Naples. Underscoring the power of photography, Francesca is transported through the images back to her homeland that she hasn’t seen in nearly two decades.
Though the connection between the two leads starts off contrived with some jarring and overly dramatic transitions, the romance becomes increasingly more genuine as the show picks up momentum from its initial slow start. Goodbrod and Gliko pair well vocally, creating nice harmonies in songs, like “Falling Into You” and “One Second and a Million Miles.” Both actors showcase impressive vocal ranges in a difficult musical score by Jason Robert Brown, comprised of narrative-driven songs that incorporate a variety of genres, including blues, country, folk and opera.
For on stage chemistry, Greg Wood and Barbara McCulloh play the endearingly at-odds, older couple Charlie and Marge, respectively. McCulloh particularly shines in her character acting role of Marge, the busy body of the town. While comical, Marge is a rich character and becomes the everyday hero of the musical.
Representing the 1960s kept housewife, Marge dreams about passion but is unable to actualize anything more than contentment. As Francesca and Robert indulge in their romance and dance inside to the radio playing, Marge sings along outside as she sweeps her porch. Marge then breaks out into her own bluesy rendition of a love song to her broom, “Get Closer.” In turn, the contrast between the inside and outside scenes mirror the two lives, namely domesticity and love, that Francesca has to choose between.
The real heart and star of the show is the small Iowa town, captured by an exquisite and rustic set design by Paul Tate dePoo III and enchanting lighting by Elizabeth Mak. While the totality of the musical underwhelms, similar to Robert’s profession of photography, the stage is picturesque and the narrative is a beautiful snapshot of two soulmates at a crossroads.
| Running through March 3. Prices vary. Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S Broad St. philadelphiatheatrecompany.org/shows/the-bridges-of-madison-county/