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The stories of bored and lovelorn housewives have always been appealing to me, whether Emma Bovary or Constance Chatterly. So "Bridges of Madison County" was a treat, a story that exposes the frailty of romantic love and how we embrace the stability of familiarity while continuing to wonder about the possibilities new encounters with others can bring.
The musical situates its characters in a time and place — in mid-1960s Madison County, Iowa — where uniformity is the order of the day. Francesca Johnson (Joan Hess), a native-born Italian, wife and mother of two, gets a few days break from her clan when her husband and kids travel to the state fair to enter their steer in a competition. Back on the farm and alone, Francesca is visited by a National Geographic photographer, Robert (Michael Halling), looking to snap some photos of the area's covered bridges. Going from sipping tea on a hot day to daily trysts, Robert's initial stop for directions to one of the bridges that locals have tried to hide turns into an event that none of them would soon forget.
The bridge, which is initially difficult to see, is a metaphor for the conduit between two very different lives. Meanwhile, the kitchen serves as the centerpiece for conflict between children and parents, idle chatter with neighbors and coffee klatches with lovers. The bedroom and the bridge are where Francesca's most vulnerable to Robert. A background filled with shades of blues and reds denotes the characters' emotions.
Marge (Ann-Ngaire Martin) brilliantly provides unexpected comic relief. As a nosy neighbor who suspects Francesca is dallying with the out-of-towner photographer, Marge displays an insecurity in her own marriage; she even plays around with the idea of having an extramarital affair herself. Another standout performance was from Noah Racey as Bud, Francesca's farmer husband. He belts out songs like "When I'm Gone" with the cadence and intonation country crooner. Francesca's new lover's performance is noteworthy for singing as well, but I took note of Hallings' ability to portray a character that straddles the line between the rugged man's man and a sensitive and sophisticated "citizen of the world" type. Hess gives a notable performance as Francesca; her character's Italian accent is heard in every syllable she utters, even in her musical numbers.
The musical's subplots around Francesca and Bud's daughter, Carolyn (Julia Nightingale, who, with glasses, bears an uncanny resemblance to singer Lisa Loeb), and their son, Michael's (Henry Nettleton), don't sustain interest. For the tunnel-visioned viewer, the kids (and even Bud) are just distractions from what's going on with the real story — the courtship between Francesca and Robert. This is a musical for romantics.