Robert James Waller’s novel “The Bridges of Madison County” created lots of buzz when it was published in 1992.
Millions loved its sentimentality and mild eroticism: Francesca, a discontented 1960s farm wife who’s originally from Italy, has an affair with Robert, a ruggedly handsome and rudderless National Geographic photographer, when her husband and kids are away. He’s in Iowa to photograph the state’s famed covered bridges, and they meet when he stops by her house for directions. Pop culture diva Oprah Winfrey called the book “a gift to the country.”
I, however, was in the camp of critics who found the novel sappy, overwritten and filled with prose that indicates Waller was his own biggest fan. And, in all honesty, it’s hard for me to embrace a story that romanticizes adultery.
Why the confessional?
It seemed relevant as I set out to review the musical version of the book, which opened Friday at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
My take: The story isn’t any more compelling than it ever was. But the Playhouse show, under director Kimberly Faith Hickman, is undeniably stunning.
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It’s worth your time if only for the gorgeous music and first-rate vocal work, acting and production values. And if you swooned over the story in the ’90s, well, this is a must-see.
I’ve heard a lot about Jason Robert Brown since I started covering theater. Local actors and directors say shows he has scored (“Parade,” “The Last Five Years”) are on their bucket lists. If I wasn’t convinced before, I am now, especially after hearing Angela Jenson Frey and Thomas Gjere sing Brown’s songs at Thursday’s preview night.
They are two of the four actors who portray the couple, alternating with Mackenzie Dehmer and James Verderamo, who performed on Friday, opening night.
Brown’s brilliant score is complex yet accessible, with styles varying from traditional musical theater to near opera to pop and country-western. It was brilliantly realized by music director Jim Boggess and his seven-piece ensemble.
And Frey was nothing short of astonishing, with a soaring, classical-style voice and heartfelt delivery. Gjere was not quite her vocal equal, but he, too, gave the songs the right emotional weight.
They’re just as convincing when they’re not singing. These roles are not easy; they have several scenes that are both sensual and suggestive. A couple of them take place in the bedroom, where he sheds his shirt and she’s wearing only a nightgown or slip. If the actors are uncomfortable, you’d never know it.
If you’re uncomfortable with such scenes, consider yourself forewarned. There’s no place for kids at this show. A few lyrics are quite explicit.
Mike Palmreuter, who plays Francesca’s husband, Bud, does a good job portraying his confusion and fear when he returns from the Indiana State Fair and his wife seems different. His is definitely the most sympathetic character.
Bud and his kids get more stage time than you might think in scenes from the fair. Julianna Cooper as daughter Caroline and Matthew Tolliver as son Michael also turn in fine performances.
The two leads aren’t the only wonderful singers in the cast. Analisa Peyton is a standout on the folk-tinged “Another Life” in a breakout as Robert’s ex-wife. Ensemble performers don’t get a dance workout, but they provide wonderful harmonies both on and offstage.
Marsha Norman, who wrote the musical’s book, wisely adds a little humor to the emotionally charged script. Joey Hartshorn as Marge, a nosy neighbor, and Kevin Olsen as her husband, Charlie, are great in roles that lighten the mood. In their devotion, they also offer a welcome marital contrast to Francesca and Bud.
A few times, I was irritated when the script seemed to indicate a New York writer’s concept of the Midwest rather than reality.
Lights, costumes and the scenic design, by Aja Jackson, Megan Kuehler and Jim Othuse, respectively, play a big part in the show’s success. A projection of expansive farmland and a windmill on the back wall sets the scene. A full kitchen with real appliances anchors the set, with simple cutouts indicating a roof, a door, the porch, the fair and the bridges. And Kuehler nailed the time period: People of a certain age, especially those with rural backgrounds, will remember clothes exactly like those in this show. You can trust me on this.
I’ll never be a fan of this story. Some people say the ending redeems it. I’m not one of those people.
But I’m certainly a fan of the artistry — and the artists — behind the Playhouse production. Many probably will find it date-night magic.