It’s not often, gentle reader, that I can honestly say that I have read the book from which a musical/film/melodrama/interpretative dance/etc (delete as applicable) was taken; but, in this instance, I Have Indeed Read That Book. The Bridges of Madison County was recommended to Mrs Chrisparkle by our friend Lady Lichfield back in the day (1992) when it was all the rage; she enjoyed it, so, as it was short, I thought I’d give it a try. It would be wrong to use the pejorative term chicklit, so I won’t. Robert James Waller’s romantic novella tells the tale of Francesca, a lonely Italian-American housewife, being swept off her feet by the dashing National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, a brief moment of passion in an otherwise dowdy existence. It had Lady Lichfield in tears; Mrs C was audibly sobbing whilst reading it; I read it and thought it was… ok.
However, when the Menier announced that they were producing the musical version of the book, which had received the Tony award for best score for its Broadway production in 2014, I knew it was the right thing to do, so booked the tickets straight away. And then I realised an extraordinary thing: The Observer gave it a 5-star review; the Standard gave it 1 star. This is going to be nothing if not Marmite.
Life for someone like Francesca must have been extraordinary difficult. Brought up with all the metropolitan bustle and bustle of Napoli, then transplanted to the plains of Iowa, you couldn’t get a stronger contrast. With her only sister on the other side of the world, she must have felt isolated, even in a loving, committed relationship. With a farmer husband and children who are only interested in showing steers, Francesca loves her family but can’t associate herself with their interests. So when the rest of the family go off to Indianapolis for a fair, she stays behind, assuring them that she will be fine with her book and testing out new recipes. And, to be fair, you get the feeling that she’s 100% telling the truth. There’s no doubt that this Francesca loves her family and seems more contented than the version of Francesca that you find in the book. So, perhaps, when Kincaid enters her life, it’s more of a surprise to her – and to us – that she falls for him so easily.
But fall she does, and, as a romantic love affair story, which she has to hide from not only her husband, but also her children and her nosy neighbours, it’s a story as old as time, but none the less emotional as a result. Confronted with the reality of her family returning home, and expecting life to carry on the same, does Francesca leave them for Robert, or does she buckle down to her previous life? If you don’t know the answer, I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to see the show to find out!
The score, by Jason Robert Brown, was completely new to me, and is truly impressive. With its plaintive intimacy, it reminded me to an extent of the score from The Hired Man, but doesn’t have the latter’s barely concealed savagery. Tom Murray’s terrific, unseen, orchestra play these beautiful tunes with a marvellous balance of strength and fragility. However, although it was performed with great bravado, I thought the opening number to the second Act, State Road 21, completely destroys the atmosphere that had been built up at the end of the first Act; hoe-downing around, and encouraging the audience to clap along just feels all wrong. Whether that’s a misjudgement by Mr Brown and Marsha Norman, who wrote the book, or by top director Sir Trevor Nunn, I have no idea, but I clapped along, unhappy with myself for doing so.
Tal Rosner’s video design projects constantly changing images on the back walls to suggest the prairie fields or the city lights, encroaching into Jon Bausor’s set which recreates a homely but modest kitchen; enough to keep a family fed, but not to linger over. A couple of things really bugged me; why, when we get a glimpse of Francesca’s sister Chiara swigging out of a wine bottle in her miserable home in Napoli, is she drinking Mersault? That’s far too upmarket (and French) to be believable. It should have been a cheap bottle of Chianti or something. And how come Kincaid goes into the garden to pick fresh vegetables for the evening meal, which Francesca then prepares and they eat, whilst the aforementioned vegetables are still sitting in the box on the kitchen worktop? If it was a film you’d say that was a continuity error.
Jenna Russell is a sensational Francesca. Resilient, brave, mature but childlike, you can see the character constantly daring herself to go one stage further, along a path to who knows what. Of course, her voice is superb and she delivers her songs full of expression, of hope and of love. Edward Baker-Duly is also excellent as Kincaid, treading a fine line between an innocent abroad and a roué; the character is neither of these, but Mr B-D always makes us think that Kincaid could react in any number of unexpected ways. The always reliable Dale Rapley is great as Francesca’s dullard husband Bud; a good, unadventurous man with no hint of suspicion. There’s excellent support from Gillian Kirkpatrick as the nosy – and slightly jealous – Marge, and Paul F Monaghan as the very grounded Charlie, as well as all the rest of the cast. But I must mention that I particularly liked Maddison Bulleyment’s portrayal of the rather goofy daughter Carolyn, with its nicely underplayed sense of comedy.
A very enjoyable and captivating production of a strong musical show. It’s on at the Menier until 14th September, and worth catching for its two central performances alone. I cannot comprehend under any circumstances how you could possibly award this production only one star!
P. S. We took tissues, just in case; we didn’t need them. However, you could certainly hear the sobs from all corners of the audience. The poor woman in the front row opposite us looked like she was going to explode in a sea of lachrymosity!
Production photos variously by Johan Persson and Alastair Muir