The Bridges of Madison County
At The SpeakEasy Stage
Now through June 3rd
Reviewed by Bobby Franklin
By the end of this production of The Bridges of Madison County, produced by the SpeakEasy Stage and playing at the Calderwood Pavillon, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. This is not to say the audience is left feeling sad or unhappy. No, touched is the word that best describes the feeling one leaves the theater with after seeing this exquisite production.
The story of the Italian war bride, Francesca, who married and settled in Iowa with her husband Bud where they are raising two children, and her four day affair with a photographer, Robert, is familiar to most people due to the popularity of the book and movie. This in no way diminishes the impact of this musical version of the story.
Jennifer Ellis as Francesca is nothing short of superb bringing one of the most beautiful voices you will hear on a theater stage today as well as the ability to reach the audience with her full range of emotions. Her perfectly underrated Italian accent is right on the mark. This will come as no surprise to those who had seen her in the SpeakEasy production of Far From Heaven or as Eliza Dolittle in The Lyric Stage’s My Fair Lady. Ms Ellis is a joy to behold.
The chemistry between Francesca and Robert, played with a slight ambiguity by the very talented Christiaan Smith, is strong both physically and emotionally. I mention ambiguity because as much as it appears these two star crossed lovers could run off and live happily ever after I was left with the feeling that the very thing that made Robert so exciting was also the thing that would not have made him a good fit for marriage and settling down.
The affair which takes place while husband Bud (Christopher Chew) and children Carolyn (Katie Elinoff) and Michael (Nick Siccone) are off to the state fair could be seen as sordid, but the story is much more than that. Mr. Chew is wonderful in playing the hard working farmer who provides a good home for his family. There is no doubt Francesca loves all of them, but she also yearns for the life she never got to live in Naples. A yearning that is triggered by the emotional scene where Robert shows her the issue of National Geographic containing photos he took of the city she was raised in.
The emotional turmoil raised by this allows us to feel compassion for her even while we feel bad for Bud. In the phone calls to home while Bud and the kids are on the road, we know that Bud begins to suspect something but never digs for answers. Mr. Chew conveys a pain with his eyes that is touching and could easily have us turn on Francesca for what she is doing. But there is much to this story and much to be sympathetic about when it comes to all the characters.
Nosey neighbor Marge (Kerry A. Dowling) and her husband Charlie (Will McGarrahan) are very funny while also showing a depth of understanding that coveys sincere kindness. Marge may appear to be a gossip but she knows how to keep a secret. She also begins to question her own marriage. Charlie who at first appears to be detached is actually quite understanding. McGarrahan and Dowling are a delight.
The score by Jason Robert Brown is wide ranging and beautiful. At times operatic, it is performed by a seven piece orchestra led by Matthew Stern. I am no musician, but I can assure you they are just great.
The lighting design by Annie Weigand plays a big part in this production. Stars, clouds, blue skies, and even streaks of light representing the bombing of Naples during the war projected onto the backdrop are both subtle and extremely effective. The set designed by Cameron Anderson is simple, tasteful, very pleasing and warm.
I highly recommend this very fine work directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. This is the last play of the 2016-2017 season at the SpeakEasy and they couldn’t have closed on a higher note. The Bridges of Madison County will leave you both happy and sad, but you will be very pleased to have seen such a solid work.
Now through June 3rd at the Calderwood Pavillon, Boston Center for the Arts, Boston’s South End. www.speakeasystage.com 617.933.8600