Dr. Blackwell's BLOG

Monday, March 28, 2022

Theater Review: The Bridges of Madison County The Musical at Axelrod PAC

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 01:59

The story of how a musical based on the beloved novel, The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert James Waller, came to be is an interesting one. The show got its start in 2013 at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Williamstown, MA. A creative team including the legendary composer Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Last Five Years) and writer Marsha Norman brought to stage an absolutely gorgeous musical that contained the core elements of the novel (with some amazingly smart alterations) but stripped much of the klutzy components of the film to life. The show would eventually make its way to Broadway in 2014, where powerhouse Kelli O’Hara would star as the female lead (Francesca) and Steven Pasquale its male lead. While the show sadly lived a short run, luckily, it has found itself as a genuine addition to the repertoire of American musical theater and lived on. Brown went on to win the Tony Award for Best Score. While nominated, unfortunately O’Hara would be robbed of the Tony for Best Actress. The American Theater Wing voters would right that wrong the following year when O’Hara won for the 2015 revival of The King & I).

I saw the original Broadway show shortly after it opened. The phenomenal voices of the leads meshed with the lush all-string and percussion orchestral score grabbed ahold of me; and the story of how two humans with similar confinements of their realities found a lifelong love for one another really made an impact. So when the closing notice was posted, I quickly purchased a ticket and flew to NYC so I could be in attendance at the show’s final performance. I also traversed the country with the Equity tour the original production spawned shortly after; and that production came close to rivaling what was seen on Broadway. Needless to say, Bridges has gone on to become one of my all-time favorite musicals. So when I learned that actor/director Hunter Foster, who played Francesca’s husband Bud in the original Broadway cast, was mounting a production of the show at the Axelrod Theater in Deal Park, NJ, there was no way I could miss it. And I’m so glad I didn’t!

While it’s nearly impossible to supplant the voices and talent of O’Hara and Pasquale, Kate Baldwin (Francesca Johnson) and Aaron Lazar (Robert Kincaid), the two leads here, are DAMN close! Baldwin, a two-time Tony Award nominee, has a voice that absolutely soars! She has perfected the nuances of her character with complete mastery. And not only does she blow the roof off with her incredibly angelic singing, she can really act. She personifies the hurt, longing, and subtle desperation of a woman trapped in a life of mundane monotony so well that when her steamy affair with handsome and rugged photographer Robert begins, the audience quickly suspends any judgment. Lazar also brings a sense of vulnerability to his character that has the same equating effect. His voice is incredibly powerful; and he (like Baldwin) has a solid comprehension of the necessity of dynamics to inflect the emotional journey of the characters through song.

The supporting cast is also superb. Bud Johnson is played by Broadway veteran Bart Shatto. He gets the opportunity to display his vocal and acting abilities in several numbers, punctuated by, “Something From A Dream” in Act I. And while Emily Pellecchia’s interpretation of Bud and Francesca’s daughter Carolyn is spot-on, Thomas Cromer’s performance of their son Michael is a little subdued for a masculine teen that is looking to rebel against the confines of rural Iowan life. The Johnson’s neighbor Marge is vital to the portrayal of the bond rural farming communities can have; and while Nikki Yarnell plays the role with a little less empathy than I’ve seen in previous productions of the show, she and Mark Megill (who plays her husband Charlie), are great. Perhaps the real standout among those playing supporting roles is Giuliano Augello, who brings down the house in her portrayal of Robert’s ex-wife Marian. Her performance of, “Another Life” was shockingly brilliant! Her light shines bright; and she fits in perfectly with the Broadway actors that make up this cast.

The scenic designs by Anna Louizos are simple (not basic) and reminiscent of the original production with some smart, albeit subtle, differences. They’re also used in a highly effective manner as they’re manipulated on stage throughout the scenes by the cast. This was one of the first shows I ever saw on Broadway that employed that technique. And it adds to the ambiance of the scenes incredibly wel. Interestingly, I learned that because cast members were involved in setting props and moving set pieces manually, they had to becoming card-carrying members of the respective union for such stagehands. Director Hunter Foster, who I’m sure has some strong emotional ties to the show since he has been involved with it since its inception, has made some absolutely wonderful staging decisions that incredibly enhance the story. 

One of the more powerful numbers is, “Get Closer,” sung by neighbor Marge in a comedic fashion while the romance between Francesca and Robert are played out towards the end of Act I. In the original production, the character sings the number stage left, somewhat distracting from the main character development. Here, the number is sung off stage with a filter designed to alter Yarnell’s voice to mimic a radio broadcast. This allows the audience to focus solely on the fiery love and connection that’s occurring between Francesca and Robert. Other notable elemental changes include deletion of a brief reunion scene fantasized by Francesca when her family encounters Robert in town and a completely different conclusion to the final scene of the show. In the original production, Francesca and Robert embrace on the bridge where they first kindled their love. In this production, Francesca relives the moment where she posed for a photograph for Robert on the bridge, invoking an even more powerful emotional reaction from the audience that imparts a slightly different, yet equally impactful, impression. 

In conclusion, I just can’t say enough good things about this production of Bridges. I saw the show two days in a row and can conclude that it is one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. When I have amazing theatrical experiences such as this, I take a moment to thank God. I thank God for blessing the performers with their immeasurable talents and abilities; and I thank God for the skill and wisdom of the composers, musicians, writers, directors, and everyone else involved in bringing something as truly magical as this to life. There’s no doubt this production was truly blessed by the almighty. Thank you to everyone for making this production of The Bridges of Madison County one I will never forget!

While the run has ended, you can check out a behind the scenes video on the production below:

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Powered by WordPress