Thalian Association brings the NC musical premiere of “The Bridges of Madison County” to the main stage of Thalian Hall. It is based upon the 1992 runaway best-selling novel by Robert James Waller, which was made into the 1995 film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. In 2014, the adaptation, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and the book by Marsh Norman, opened on Broadway. Thalian’s production is directed by Chandler Davis (also the association’s artistic director), and it is filled with romance, longing, sweetness, and a touch of joyful eroticism. It can make even the heaviest heart sigh, and it would have been a great Valentine’s Day show.
The show opens in 1965 with Francesca (Heather Setzler) singing “To Build a Home,” the saga of her journey from war-torn Italy to Iowa, as the bride of an American solider, Bud (Mark Deese). Little by little, she has become the perfect mid-century housewife and mother to two children, Carolyn (Logan Tart) and Michael (Gregory Beddingfield). It has taken a lot of hard work, and there isn’t much room for self-expression, excitement or luxury. But it is a good, solid, safe life. In fact, Bud is taking Carolyn to the National 4-H competition for the weekend to compete with her steer, Stevie, for the national title. Her brother, Michael, is being dragged along as well. It will be good for the kids to spend time with their father, and Francesca is looking forward to four days of quiet and no chores. (Aren’t we all?)
About the time Bud and the kids are pulling out of town, Robert Kincaid (Brenton Schraff) is arriving to shoot pictures of the famous covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa. It is a small town, and everyone has noticed his arrival, and they even know where he has booked a room for the night. Only, he can’t find the last bridge—the Roseman Bridge—on his list. He stops at Francesca’s farm to ask for directions. She agrees to take him there. Alone with Robert at the bridge, well, things start to move quickly.
Francesca’s next door-neighbor, Marge (Lisa Bohbrink), is following Robert’s progress with the aid of binoculars. Her husband, Charlie (Jon Wallin), admonishes her to stop, but they both gossip about Francesca’s behavior. At the moment of capitulation, while Francesca and Robert are dancing in the kitchen, Marge actually sings the song playing on the radio for them: “Get Closer” a cabaret number that is like Patsy Cline crossed with Marilyn Monroe, singing “Happy Birthday Mr. President.” (Whew!)
Davis scored a home run with casting the show. Setzler is phenomenal as Francesca: confined, ready to burst at the seams, and desperate to be seen as something more than just a housewife—in spite of crossing an ocean and starting a new life, still very innocent, inexperienced and sheltered.
Deese’s Bud is a down-home decent guy. He shows love by making sure he provides a good home for his wife and family. Is he exciting? Sophisticated? Demonstrative? Imaginative? No. Between his big songs (“You’re Never Alone,” “Home Before You Know It” and “Something From A Dream”), we know he is the stand-up kind of guy who tries, but still isn’t sure how he wound up with her. He treats her the way other men around him treat their wives—but he clearly wishes he knew how to do something more wonderful for her.
A lot of the success of this show hinges on the casting of Robert Kincaid. The audience has to genuinely believe Francesca is tempted into an affair, and seriously wrestles with possibility of throwing away her home, her family, and her children to be with another man. Yes, Robert must be gorgeous—and Schraff is. But it isn’t just his debonair looks: He gives an amazing performance and captures everything we want Robert to be: charismatic, sophisticated, mysterious, gentle. He journeys from having carefully constructed indifference to being completely, believably vulnerable.
Schraff and Setzler’s chemistry is the kind the audience physically can feel as the third person in a room with them. If they were to go out in public together, the whole town would know. It only takes one look at them to be caught up in it. The triangle of Setzler, Schraff and Deese is wrenching for the audience—we honestly aren’t sure which team to pull for. Do we hope she gives into passion and joy and runs away with him? Or do we hope she finds the strength to recognize how much her husband loves her and how badly her children need her? Honestly, either outcome looks pretty desirable.
Lance Howell has designed a really phenomenal set which shows off many dimensions of the characters’ lives. The Roseman Bridge, for example, is created with two peaks and two railings, all rolled into position by members of town who slowly exit the stage. It creates a community that surrounds and watches their every move within an isolated little bubble of their own making—their perfect private world. One of the peaks form the bridge and doubles as the peak of Francesca’s house—which is really a powerful visual link through the storyline.
In spite of the phenomenal performances, great writing, an innovative set and Debbie Scheu’s beautiful costumes, for the entire ride home, all my date could talk about was how much he adored Katie Deese’s sound design. “It’s the first time in years I could follow every word at Thalian Hall!” He gushed over and over again. I have to admit, especially with musicals, it can be frustrating to lose so much of the story from not being able to hear the lyrics—but not this time. He heard every word perfectly, and considering how beautifully the entire cast sang, audiences would not want to miss a note.
Hands down, “The Bridges of Madison County” is my favorite musical I have seen yet in 2018. In many ways it’s a show I have been waiting for; I needed so much to see Setzler in this role and believe her struggle with these two men. The cast really brings to life the many facets and struggles of love, not just romantic, but familial—and loving thy neighbor. It is beautifully put together and offered the audience a reminder why musical theatre continues to shine.