At one point during the musical The Bridges of Madison County, adapted for the stage from Robert James Waller’s novel of the same name, Francesca, the title character, says, “We mustn’t reduce it to something clear or simple.” The same could be said of the Theatre Raleigh production now playing at the Kennedy Theatre. It is dimensionally layered with strong performances, design elements, and a haunting score that compensate for some of the script’s shortcomings.
Like Waller’s book and subsequent 1995 movie, the musical tells the story of Francesca, an Italian expat living in Iowa with her American husband and two children, and Robert, a photographer for National Geographic who has come to “make pictures” of Iowa’s idyllic covered bridges. And while it is a sad story of impossible love, this stage adaptation zeroes in on Francesca, her backstory, and the choices she’s made and why.
In the Theatre Raleigh production, Janine DiVita as Francesca fleshes out the character even further. Snapshots of subtleties along with stunning vocals make for a gorgeous, nuanced performance. DiVita embraces Francesca’s physicality in a way that feels genuine. Her facial expressions and body language speak to the character of Francesca almost more so than what she says or sings. This is Francesca’s story and DiVita owns it from the first note to the last.
And to DiVita’s Francesca is Patrick Oliver Jones as the lone wolf photographer Robert Kincaid. His Robert is cool and reserved, and his vocals are rich, controlled, and well-balanced.
DiVita, Jones, and the rest of the cast weave their way effortlessly through Jason Robert Brown’s Tony Award-winning, emotive score. Each character has their own distinctive sound from country to folk to opera, and each actor ably sings through every musical moment faultlessly. Unfortunately, Marsha Norman’s book doesn’t quite rise to the same level as Brown’s score or Waller’s novel for that matter, and parts of the show feel rushed and contrived.
Smartly, director Lauren Kennedy Brady overcomes that by spotlighting the strong performances and music (the band is even visible on the stage) and thoughtfully staging scenes so close to the audience that it is hard not to become emotionally invested and remain engaged. In fact, the proximity of the actors to the audience and the intimate feel of this show in every aspect of its design is THE argument for supporting local theaters like Theatre Raleigh and smaller venues like the Kennedy.
As a woman and mother, it is easy to identify and empathize with Francesca, a woman wrestling between her unrealized girlish dreams and her very real-world responsibilities. And it’s the deliberate and almost reverential focus on that aspect of the story, the decisions and sacrifices made that weigh on the female heart, that resonates and transcends beyond typical romance novel tropes and results in something a bit meatier than it first appears.
The Theatre Raleigh production of The Bridges of Madison County runs through August 18th at the Kennedy Theatre at The Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. For more information visit: https://theatreraleigh.com/.
Hear what composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown has to say about his relationship with Lauren Kennedy and the challenges of adapting a beloved movie into a musical for the stage on Episode 30 of the RDU on Stage podcast.