Yes, I was one of the 50 million who bought and presumably read Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel The Bridges of Madison County. But unlike so many of those adoring throngs that made Waller’s mawkish tale of midlife marital moonlighting a runaway success, I hated the book. I hated that it was a story of Francesca, a repressed but complacent country housewife who blossoms only when a handsome stranger arrives and sweeps her off her feet. I hated the often ridiculous and chauvinistic depictions of a woman’s sexual arousal. I hated the treacly and just plain pulpy writing. But most of all, I hated that in the end, to secure her role as heroine, Francesca must deny herself romantic fulfillment in order to remain a good, honest and unhappy wife and mother. Heaven forbid a woman actually break her traditional saintly role and go for what she wants – that would be unseemly! She’d be a whore instead of a poor, powerless, yearning woman, and how could the tut-tutting book club crowd love her then? Ugh – I start to fume just thinking about it.
The musical The Bridges of Madison County (book by Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Tony winner Jason Robert Brown), now playing at the Hobby Center courtesy of Theatre Under the Stars, diminishes my ire somewhat with its less flowery fantasy arc that places the reins more firmly in Francesca’s hands. But, unfortunately, this shift toward the somewhat more female-empowered results in a narrative tied into several believability knots.
But before we have the chance to witness any of this, we’re faced with the opening number, “To Build a Home,” in which Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley) tells us of her move from Italy to Iowa on the arm of American soldier Bud (Cullen R. Titmas) to start a life and family together on a quiet country farm. Or at least that’s what we should have understood from the number. Here (and elsewhere in the musical), the strong-voiced Stanley is the perfect example of bad accents happening to good singers, affecting Italian intonations so atrocious as to render them nearly incomprehensible in song. Stanley’s number registers about every third or fourth word in our ears, sounding like “Napoli…300 acres…themselves…home” in a kind of barely understandable staccato.
But never mind that. Book sales (and a 1995 hit movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood) pretty much assures that most, if not all, of the predominantly female audience is well-versed in the story. Besides, it’s the meeting of the soon-to-be lovers that everyone is waiting for.
It comes when Bud (smartly written as a decent if distant husband) and their two kids, rebellious Michael (Dave Thomas Brown) and tattletale good girl Carolyn (Caitlin Houlahan), leave for four days to show Carolyn’s prize steer at the county fair. Just as la familia has left the farm (all pale-hued, simplistic 1960s interiors with a view of a grand tree and endless croplands), up the driveway comes Robert Kinkaid (Andrew Samonsky), a free-spirited, handsome National Geographic photographer in town to shoot the covered bridges in the area. Lost, he asks for directions from the intrigued Francesca, setting in motion a four-day doomed affair that has the pair not only declaring their love for each other but parsing out cloyingly hyperbolic declarations such as Francesca’s “I love you more than my life itself.”
However, it’s not the lovey-dovey punch line that’s the issue here. It’s how the lovers get to that point that undoes this show. Norman focuses character development and dialogue on Francesca, reducing Robert to a shadow of a man. We know he’s divorced, we know he’s a vegetarian, we know he enjoys Italian food and we know he likes to take photographs. And that’s about it. When Francesca, supposedly attracted to him, sings "What Do You Call a Man Like That?” in amazement after meeting Robert, our response is, um…we call him kinda dull.
While Samonsky handles his moony numbers such as “Temporarily Lost” (setting him up as an emotional drifter) and “It All Fades Away” (still pining for Francesca at the end of his life) with sonorous vocals, his portrayal of Robert doesn’t help things. Shoulders shrugged, hands in pockets and speaking softly, Robert oozes not one ounce of masculinity, confidence or pheromonal tug that could feasibly woo a woman to break her wedding vows and so quickly bed a stranger. There was always an element of Francesca being the bolder one in this story; after all, she has more to lose. But by giving all the personality to that character, Norman has sapped the allure right out of this love story, leaving no one hot and bothered (despite several dimly lit, PG-rated sex scenes) or really understanding Francesca’s motivations beyond her dissatisfaction with a boring life among the cornfields. She comes across as unrepentantly sexually aggressive (which is fine) toward a man who doesn’t merit her advances. Not so fine.
Some reprieve from the snore of the baffling affair comes via supporting performances. Nosy but ultimately loyal friend and neighbor Marge (Mary Callanan) and her husband, Charlie (David Hess), provide much-needed comic relief, not to mention two of the best musical numbers in the show. Robert’s ex-wife Marian, who has not a single line of dialogue, impresses nonetheless with a beautifully constructed song, “Another Life,” describing the joys of the beginning and the sadness of the downfall of her and Robert’s failed marriage. But it’s Bud in “Something From a Dream” who gets the best of Brown’s lyrics, despite the cringe-worthy inclusion of the line “Look, Italians, no offense, the laziest people in the world.” Racial stereotypes aside, Bud’s song is a heartbreaking private lamentation of his complicity in the dreariness of his marriage.
“I mean, it’s not like she complains at all.
It’s just, you gotta pay attention,
And with all the other crap I’m takin’ care of,
She might feel embarrassed
Takin’ time to tell me what she needs.
And to me she’s still like something from a dream.
And to her, I’m like the guy who keeps the lights turned on.
I’m gonna take her on a trip this year.
Maybe next summer.
Not like we’re gonna have the money for vacations.
I guess we’ll figure something out...”
Had Brown been able to write this type of emotional truth into the rest of the numbers, perhaps we could have more readily bought into whatever power dynamic Norman had thrown our way. Instead (and without any dance numbers to amuse us), Brown relies on musical chameleon tricks to keep us engaged. The Tony-winning score swings wildly from traditional Broadway-esque ballads to guitar-strummy folk/pop tunes to downright jazzy/bluesy/gospel numbers, topped off with none other than a 13-minute operatic-style solo for Francesca in the second act that would have benefitted from surtitles to help us decipher that ridiculous accent. No one wants to hear the same music again and again in a show, but this hodgepodge of styles, while greatly entertaining in some instances, as a whole feels about as coherent as Ikea furniture instructions. Instead of a rich, score-driven production, we are left with musical threads to cling to knowing they will never wrap us fully in the blanket of this tale.
Ultimately, though, this story isn’t about cohesion or songs or sex (no matter how many times Robert takes his shirt off in this production) or even love. For the romantic set, it’s about denying selfish pleasure for the greater good and the tortured notion of longing for the one you could’ve had. For us realists (cynics?), it’s about a woman who knew what she wanted but didn’t feel powerful enough to make it work for herself or her family.
But no matter on which side of the divide one sits, as the final supposedly heartstringy moments unfolded onstage, there was barely a sniffle from the crowd. I’d like to think it’s because we’ve moved beyond the housewife rescue fantasy, but alas, I fear that it was merely the lack of eros on the set and not the Harlequin-mindedness that kept tear ducts arid. Hunky strangers be warned, apparently you are still fair game.
The Bridges of Madison County runs through January 31 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For tickets, call 713-558-8887 or visit tuts.com. $37.50-$119.50