An Unexpected Love

The Bridges of Madison County (Ahmanson)userpic=ahmansonIt is rare that I am surprised by a show. For most shows, going in, I’ve heard the score, read the synopses, and seen a few reviews. For The Bridges of Madison County (FB) at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) [which we saw last night], however, I was pleasantly surprised. Going in, I had never seen the movie or read the book upon which this was based. Going in I had heard the music — but this is a show where the music alone does not convey the story. Had I read the synopsis? Perhaps, but I certainly didn’t remember it. I had seen that the show had good — and locally, some great — reviews. But in my eyes, this was a romance. For some treason, it was stuck in my head as being another The Light in the Piazza: a romantic chick-theatre outing that wouldn’t particularly excite me.

I was wrong, and I admit it. This show got me hooked into the story. It was beautifully crafted, beautifully performed, and beautifully executed. It was a show where the score — which hadn’t particularly stuck with me before (I preferred the score to JRB‘s Honeymoon in Vegas) — resonated more deeply now that I was able to connect it the story. I truly enjoyed this show. It is one of those special shows where the sum of the parts: the performances, the story, the technical, and the score come together to hook you in a way any individual piece might not.

The story itself is a romance. I’m not a big lover of romances; being an engineer, that’s something that’s not really in my nature. As I said above, I had never read the original novel by Robert James Waller (FB). I had also never seen the Oscar-nominated movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. I hadn’t even read the synopsis with the CD. Perhaps you haven’t either. So here’s the elevator version of the story (you can find a more detailed synopsis on the show’s Wikipedia page): Francesca is a war-bridge, who moved to Madison County, Iowa with her soldier husband, Bud, after the war. Eighteen years later they are still together, with two teenage children (Michael and Carolyn), who are about to head off to Indianapolis IN for the State Fair with their father. Francesca stays home expecting a few days of peace, quiet, rest, and relaxation. A National Geographic photographer, Robert, comes by the farm looking for directions to a particular covered bridge in the county. Francesca directs him to the bridge, and shortly they find themselves falling for each other. Robert fulfills a need she had forgotten in herself; he listens and cares about her as her, in a way her husband doesn’t. Observing this all are her neighbors, Charlie and Marge.  The two lovers grow closer, but all to soon the family is returning home, and the photographs have been taken. Robert goes off, hoping that Francesca will one day contact him. The family returns, and Francesca is soon drawn back into world of family and the love of family. She comes to realize that while the romance was a beautiful fantasy, the reality of family is strong… but she is haunted by the “what if?”. I’ll leave the epilogue to the epilogue.

For the stage, the original book by Waller (FB) was adapted by Marsha Norman (FB) [who did the book for The Color Purple and The Secret Garden], and augmented by the music and lyrics of Jason Robert Brown (FB). An interview in the program with Norman notes that, while the book tells the story from Robert’s point of view, the musical focuses on Francesca’s point of view. It points out that this is one of the few shows that actually has a book by a female playwright, and she describes a picture of the Broadway production’s Francesca, Kelli O’Hara (FB), holding a picture with a wonderful quote: “I need stories by women on stage because my daughter will hear the echo of their voices.” This was a point echoed in the Broadway Bullet, Episode 608 podcast, which was specifically focused on women’s voices and diversity in the theatre (and it dovetails with my diversity post). I’m not sure that I could particularly detect the women’s voice in the story vs. what it might have been with a man’s voice, except perhaps in the gentleness, the memory, and the ongoing battle between passion and family.

Overall, I found the story strangely compelling. It wasn’t the sappy romance I had gone in expecting. The situations and the performances combined to create a world and characters that you quickly grew to care about.

The music was pure Jason Robert Brown (FB) [JRB]. The music reminded me most of his romantic work in The Last 5 Years and the power of Parade, as opposed to the more rockish scores of 13 or Honeymoon in Vegas. There were some wonderful moments that moved into the country and bluegrass side; a style of music which I love. I found that the show made me appreciate the score and cast album more. I particularly liked the energy of “State Route 21”, and the gentle piano background of “What Do You Call a Man Like That?”.  I also found Marian’s number, “Another Life”, quite touching. The Los Angeles audience was also treated to having Brown as the conductor of the orchestra, not the normal tour conductor (Keith Levenson (FB)). Brown also had the luxury of a good size locally-based orchestra: Caleb Hoyer (FB) (Associate Conductor) on Piano; Michelle Maruyama (FB) (Concertmaster) on Violin; Daniel Erben/FB and Justin Rothberg (FB) on Guitars; Sharon Jackson (FB) on 2nd Violin; Pam Jacobson (FB) and Adriana Zoppo (FB) on Viola and Violin; Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick on Cello; Ian Walker (FB) on Bass; and Ed Smith (FB) on Drums and Percussion. Michael Keller (FB) and Michael Aarons (FB) were the music coordinators, and Robert Payne and Dan Savant were the music contractors. Keith Levenson (FB) was the Music Director. Tom Murray (FB) was the Music Supervisor. Jason Robert Brown (FB) did the Orchestrations.

Before I go into the performance, let’s explore the dance. There was none. OK, being serious, there was no choreographer credit, only the broader Movement, credited to Danny Mefford (FB). There is, however, a dance captain in the person of Lucy Horton (FB). The translation of this is that there was none of the gratuitous dancing that you’ll find in other Broadway shows (if you recall, I complained about the gratuitous dancing in the background of last week’s If / Then ). There were one or two dance moments: Robert and Francesca in the kitchen; some brief dancing at the State Fair. But more of the dance was really movement — I might even call it a ballet — of the ensemble members moving the set pieces on and off set. The manner of gentle movement of those pieces were a dance, and were as much part of the story as any kickstep or waltz.

The performances were under the principal direction of Bartlett Sher (FB), who did the Broadway direction, and Tyne Rafaeli (FB), who was the tour director. In a broad sense, if I had to describe the direction, it would be “gentle”. The directoral team allows the performances and story to be front and center, and devised a way for the flashback scenes to be effectively presented.  The only thing I couldn’t quite figure out was why he had ensemble members sitting on the stage just watching the action.

In the lead performance positions were Elizabeth Stanley (FB) as Francesca and Andrew Samonsky (FB) as Robert. I’ll note that Stanley was recently a guest on the wonderful Theater People (FB) podcast. Stanley’s performance was great. Looking nothing like her picture in the program or her website, she just came across as real. She had a lovely voice, and her singing style in this show was so different than in so many other shows. Just beautiful. I also particularly appreciated the little touches she added — facial expressions, little touches here and there such as straightening the hair of her daughter. Opposite her, Samonsky had an easygoing style and a lovely voice that was remarkably appealing. I think the chemistry and interplay between these two are a major reason for the impact of this tour.

In the next tier, we have the remainder of Francesca’s family: Cullen R. Titmas (FB) as Bud, Caitlin Houlahan (FB) as Carolyn, and Dave Thomas Brown (FB) as Michael. Here I was particularly taken with the spunkiness and energy of Houlahan’s performance; she was just fun to watch. Titmas was also quite strong as Bud — he did a great job of conveying the love he had for his family and his wife. Titmas was also very strong in “It All Fades Away”, and the whole family was strong in “Home Before You Know It”.

Also in this tier were the neighbors, Mary Callanan (FB) as Marge and David Hess (FB) as Charlie.  These were smaller roles, but both Callanan and Hess brought something special to them. Calanan was particularly strong in “Get Closer”, and Hess in “When I’m Gone”.

Rounding out the cast were the one-scene characters and ensemble members: Katie Klaus [Marian, Chiara, State Fair Singer]; Cole Burden (FB) [Ensemble, u/s Robert]; Caitlyn Caughell (FB) [Ensemble, u/s Carolyn, u/s Marian / Chiara / State Fair Singer]; Brad Greer (FB) [Ensemble, Paolo, u/s Robert, u/s Michael]; Amy Linden (FB) [Ensemble, u/s Carolyn, u/s Marian /  Chiara / State Fair Singer]; Trista Moldovan (FB) [Ensemble; u/s Francesca, u/s Marge]; Jessica Sheridan (FB) [Ensemble; u/s Marge]; Matt Stokes (FB) [Ensemble, u/s Bud, u/s Charlie]; and Tom Treadwell (FB) [Ensemble, u/s Bud, u/s Charlie). Swings were Lucy Horton (FB) [Dance Captain; u/s Francesca] and Bryan Welnicki [u/s Michael]. The player board indicated that Welnicki was performing at our performance, but there was no substitution announcement and no indication of which ensemble member was not there. Particularly noteworthy here was Klaus — she just was perfection on both “Another Life” and “State Route 21”. There was also an ensemble member that kept drawing my eye, but alas I do not know here name: all I can recall is that in the “State Route 21” number, she was in boots and a shortish skirt, and I want to say blonde, so based on pictures along, I’d guess Jessica.

Finally, let’s turn to the production team and other creatives. The scenic design by Michael Yeargan, with additional set and adaptation by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams (FB) was simple and effective. There were a few fly-down components that evoked location — the edge of a roof, a sign here or there. But most of the pieces were set pieces on wheels moved in and out by the cast members. They worked remarkably well, and became the dance component of the overall production. The kitchen set was particularly nice. This combined with the excellent lighting design of Donald Holder to create a particularly strong unified picture. I particularly appreciated the lit backdrops/projections that worked wonderfully to establish the sense of overall place and mood. The costume design by Catherine Zuber combined with the hair and wigs of David Brian Brown (FB) to create a very good picture of the characters (he also did the wigs for If / Then). I particular admired the costuming and wigs used for Francesca — these made the character look completely different from the actress. The sound design of Jon Weston was clear and unobtrusive. Stephen Gabis was the dialect coach, and (at least to my ears) Francesca sounded Italian — so he must have done something right. Rounding out the production team were: The Booking Group (FB) [Tour Booking]; Telsey+Company (FB) [Casting]; Type A Marketing (FB) [Marketing and Press]; Melissa Chacón (FB) [Production Stage Manager]; Joshua Pilote (FB) [Stage Manager]; Norah Scheinman (FB) [Assistant Stage Manager]; and Ryan Parliment [Company Manager]. There were numerous producers; notable members of the producers team were Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Ken Davenport (FB) [who does an excellent blog and podcast called The Producers Perspective]; Independent Presenters Network [meaning that the LORT theatres on the tour helped get the show off the ground], and Warner Brothers Theatre Ventures (FB) [meaning that the movie team invested in the musical].

The Bridges of Madison County – The Musical (FB) continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through January 17, 2016. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson website; Hottix may be available by calling 213.628.2772. Discount tickets are also available on Goldstar. The show is well worth seeing; I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: This was our penultimate show for 2015. Our last show is later today: Nunsense at Crown City Theatre (FB). After the writeup for that show is posted, expect a “year in review” writeup. The new year, 2016, starts with “Louis and Keeley – Live at the Sahara” at The Geffen Playhouse (FB) on January 2nd. This is followed by “Bullets Over Broadway” at the Pantages (FB) on January 9; “That Lovin’ Feelin’” at The Group Rep (FB) on January 16; “Stomp” at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB)  on January 24; and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on January 30. There is also the open question of whether there will be Repertory East Playhouse (“the REP”) (FB) 2016 season, and when it will start.  However, given there has been no announcement, I feel safe booking all weekends in January  (I’ll note that if there is no REP season, I’ll likely subscribe at Group Rep — call it the Law of Conservation of REP). February starts with a hold date for “An Act of God” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The rest of the February schedule is empty except for February 28, when we are seeing The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB). March brings “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and has two potential dates on hold for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix). I expect to be filling out February as December goes on.  As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.