From the first melancholic notes of the opening number, “To Build a Home,” it is clear that this show aims to lay bare its very soul to audiences. Based on Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel, The Bridges of Madison County musical was written by the Tony Award-winning creative team of Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years) and Marsha Norman (The Color Purple.) Brown’s soaring, emotional score sets a lush and dramatic tone for an otherwise stripped-down tale of a stifled Midwestern housewife drawn into a whirlwind, one-week romance with a handsome stranger.
Delivered by middle-aged Francesca (played with a lovely sadness and simplicity by Kristen Bond) the opening song “To Build a Home” is a cello-fueled lament of escaping war-torn Napoli as an army bride and eventually building a new life for herself in Iowa. Bond’s singing voice is light and lovely, delivering the solo with heartfelt honesty and grace.
Her husband, Bud (a grounded turn by Paul Nolette), and their high energy teenage children Carolyn (Rachel Erwin) and Michael (played by co-study Jacob King when I attended) are headed out of town to compete at the State Fair.
Brown’s score creates a quilt of contrasting musical styles, from Francesca’s ever-present cello-motif, the guitar pumping, foot stomping country style of Bud and the State Fair and soon, a mysterious stranger who has found his way down Francesca’s driveway in the piano-backed “Temporarily Lost.”
The mysterious newcomer to town is Robert Kincaid (played by a very solid Toby Andrews), a National Geographic photographer who is searching for just one last covered bridge to finish his magazine assignment. After a trek guiding him to the “hidden” bridge, Francesca invites him back to her house, which leads to dinner, drinks and the possibility of much more.
With Francesca home alone for what seems like the first time, the duo’s scenes play nicely, growing from cautious conversation to flirtatious and funny, but also with a sense that both characters are more than a bit surprised by the mutual attraction they are experiencing. As Francesca, Bond succeeds in giving us a woman whose desires and vibrant personality have finally bubbled up again after being pushed to the background for too many years.
While Marsha Norman’s book does a good job to further the plot, it is through the songs that the real passion seems to ignite. Andrews’ singing voice (especially in his lower register) is quite the revelation, starting with the early “Wondering,” the soaring “Falling into You” with Bond and then practically bringing down the roof with the climactic second act duet “One Second and a Million Miles.” I thoroughly enjoyed his warmth and humor in the role, and was just floored by his singing abilities throughout. Bond is also well cast as his love interest, capturing the initial shyness of Francesca, but then gradually showing us a vibrant, fully fleshed out woman who is capable of going after exactly what she wants.
The show bounces back and forth between Bud and the kid’s adventures at the State Fair and Francesca’s blossoming romance. Fair to say that the question of whether or not the kids will win “Steer of the Year” was not weighing upon me nearly as much as the “will they, or won’t they?” aspect of the two lovers’ growing passion.
Surprising strains of other musical genres run throughout the show, first the lilting ’60s folk ballad “Another Life,” performed by the sweetly doe-eyed Shannon Davis, and then the torch ballad “Get Closer” delivered with Patsy Cline panache by character actress Jill Jones.
Director Rita Maron and her creative team have done an outstanding job in creating the flat, well-worn feeling of the Iowan farmland. The large cast ensemble works well together to evoke a strong sense of community and stoicism, in both the group numbers and large scenes. The orchestra is top-notch, at curtain call leaving me wondering just how the group manages to secure such talented people across the board. Truly, it must again be said that Maron and her Academy Players have truly succeeded in creating a new kind of theater — something they have dubbed in interviews as “Pro Com” — community theater at a professional level. Kudos to all.
Academy Players production of The Bridges of Madison County closes November 5. All performances are at Q2Q Black Box Theatre, 180 Button Hole Drive, Building 2, Providence. According to their website, all remaining performances are sold out. For more information, call 401-830-0880 or visit academyplayersri.org.