This powerful theater season in Boston has added another notch to its gun. The SpeakEasy Stage Company production of "The Bridges of Madison County" that opened this weekend at the Calderwood Pavilion is a transcendent work of art, with excellence on display by all involved, from the creative forces who wrote the piece, to the technicians who have helped to stage it, to those who bring it alive on stage and in the orchestra pit.
I had the privilege of seeing the short-lived Broadway run of this musical, with the luminous Kelli O'Hara in the key role of Francesca, the Italian war bride who is struggling with her life as a farmer's wife in the cornfields of Iowa. Ms. O'Hara's performance was wonderful, but I do not recall being as deeply moved by her portrayal of Francesca as I was yesterday by the incredibly talented Jennifer Ellis, who anchors this production. Ms. Ellis has built a stellar resume as a leading lady on Boston area stages, but she has never shone more brightly than she does in this challenging role. Her singing of the haunting score by Jason Robert Brown is crystal clear, but it is her ability to project the range of emotions that Francesca experiences during this play that builds a bridge between the character and the audience. She constructs that bridge with an artistry that employs tools of voice, inflection, gesture, glance, posture, gait, and pace. It is a performance that you will not want to miss.
|Christiaan Smith as Robert|
Jennifer Ellis as Francesca
"The Bridges of Madison County"
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Through June 3rd
But it is not the case that this production relies on the brilliance of Jennifer Ellis alone. She is wonderfully supported on all sides. Her leading man Christiaan Smith, is a matinee idol right out of central casting as the rugged and loner Robert, a National Geographic photographer who has come to Madison County to capture the iconic covered bridges. Little did he suspect that a humble Iowa housewife would capture his heart in the process. He arrives at Francesca's farmhouse to ask directions. He is lost in more than one sense. Husband Bud (Christopher Chew) and teenage children Carolyn (Katie Elinoff) and Michael (Nick Siccone) have decamped to Indianapolis for the 4H National, where Carolyn's prize steer will be judged. The question is, while the family is away, will Francesca steer clear of the dangers that present themselves when sparks fly between her and Robert. Their duets soar and build musically and emotionally as the action of the play develops. "Wondering," "Falling Into You," "Who We Are and Who We Want To Be," and "Before and After You/A Million Miles" are all memorable in the depth of the writing and the brilliance of execution by these two fine actors.
Mr. Chew is a perfect foil. Bud is a solid, conservative, salt of the earth type who knows how to run a farm, but never figures out how to cultivate the fallow field that is Francesca's heart. His song, "Something From A Dream," helps to define his character. Ms. Elinoff and Mr. Siccone are effective as the troubled and troublesome teenagers who fight with one another and with their father over issues of future direction for them and for the family.
Francesca's wonderfully nosey neighbors are Marge (Kerry A. Dowling) and her laconic husband, Charlie (Will McGarrahan). Their subdued existence is wonderful counterpoint to the passion that Francesca and Robert exude. Ms. Dowling and Mr. McGarrahan are perfect in these important secondary roles. Highlights include her song "Get Closer," and his elegiac "When I'm Gone."
Alessandra Valea does double duty as Robert's ex-wife, Marian, and Francesca's randy sister, Chiara. As Marian, she shines in the song "Another Life."
Rounding out the cast are Peter S. Adams, Rachel Belleman, Ellen Peterson, and Edward Simon. Ms. Belleman makes a strong vocal impression as a Radio Singer in State Road 21.
Director M. Bevin O'Gara makes an indelible mark with this production as she prepares to leave Boston for a new and exciting career opportunity to run a theater in upstate New York. She has made some excellent choices in allowing the actors to convey this moving story with a minimum of clutter. The Scenic Design by Cameron Anderson subtly suggests the angle of beams of the iconic covered bridges, enhanced by brilliantly conceived Lighting by Annie Weigand and Projections by Garrett Herzig. Costumes by Mark Nagle are rooted in the fields of Iowa, and Sound Design by David Reiffel helps to complete the bucolic setting of the action. Music Director Matthew Stern leads an excellent seven piece band that is strong in conveying Mr. Brown's liberal use of guitar and strings, featuring mellow cello riffs that set the right mood for the piece. Choreography is by Misha Shields.
The choices that Francesca and Robert make reminded me of Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken." It is an honest and deeply resonating story line. The peripatetic Robert came to Iowa to photograph bridges, but he found that the chasm deep in his soul was bridged by Francesca's beauty and openness. Her longing for home found an unlikely cure in the arms of this world traveler who had photographed her bombed out home town of Naples. He photographed the bench where she used to sit awaiting the return of her Italian soldier finance who never came back from the war. Seeing the picture of that bench ripped off the scab and opened up her heart to acknowledge a lifetime of longing for something ineffable.
Book is by Marsha Norman, based upon the novel by Robert James Waller. This production will run through June 4th. Rush to get tickets while they are still available. I consider this show a MUST SEE for any serious theatergoer.
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