The intimacy looks properly intimate, and very well-coordinated, in Signature Theatre’s sensual new production of Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman’s Tony-winning musical adaptation The Bridges of Madison County (★★★☆☆).
Sensuality streams through Robert James Waller’s mega-selling 1992 romance novel recounting the brief, sweet, hot affair between Iowa farm wife Francesca Johnson and rugged National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid. Over four sweltering days in 1965, the two strangers bond over long talks where they truly hear and see one another. They take in the peaceful Midwest countryside, which she sketches as he shoots. They cook for each other. They make love.
Francesca, an Italian war bride unfulfilled in her life of staid domesticity with farmer husband Bud and their two kids Michael and Caroline, shares something potentially life-changing with Robert, a lonesome adventurer who similarly loses himself in their secret idyll.
Waller put that passion into prose that moved millions — though, some more to sarcastic laughter than to tears. Clint Eastwood’s 1995 film adaptation captured Fran and Robert’s love story via the visual poetry conjured by cinematographer Jack N. Green and the bucolic Madison County scenery, and by the sublime Oscar-nominated performance of Meryl Streep as Francesca.
For this musical rendering, Brown, who won Tonys for Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations, expresses it in songs like “Wondering” and “Falling Into You,” which sound lovely if not altogether transporting in Ethan Heard’s sexy staging starring Erin Davie as Francesca and Mark Evans as Robert. Because it isn’t the music so much as the leads’ rapport, laced with sexual tension, that really sings in this production.
Still, The Bridges of Madison County, featuring a 12-piece orchestra conducted by William Yanesh, does produce powerful musical moments. Evans displays fine command of the songs and every line of story they tell — from Robert’s first solo, “Temporarily Lost,” a guitar-strumming, lazy afternoon drive of a peek into the photographer’s itinerant life, to his last, heart-tugging number, “It All Fades Away.”
Equally impressive is the actor’s command of his physical presence in a role that calls for an easygoing but electrifying carnal appeal. Described in the book as “a graceful, hard, male animal who did nothing overtly to dominate her yet dominated her completely,” Robert here, thankfully, registers with more subtlety and genuine vulnerability alongside his storybook sensitive-hunk qualities.
Evans plies that sensitivity with well-placed restraint, whether through Brown’s score of John Denver-meets-Joni Mitchell folk-pop showtunes, or in the buildup to those moments when Robert and Francesca finally give in to their burning attraction.
As a ’60s wife and mother who might have resigned herself to a marriage depleted of carnal desire, Davie certainly makes us believe Francesca might risk it all for a night or more of sexual abandon with this enchanting stranger.
Davie’s command of the songs is less assured, and the confidence otherwise apparent in her characterization doesn’t consistently extend to her approach to the songs.
Rayanne Gonzales oozes confidence in her portrayal of nosy neighbor Marge, and in Marge’s sultry “Get Closer,” which helps close the first act with a bang.
For the number, Heard puts Marge up on a balcony, a ripened Juliet singing love into the night. A richly versatile feature in Lee Savage’s bridges-and-farmhouse set design, it’s the same balcony where Marge perches to spy on the lovebirds all weekend with her binoculars.
The ladder up to that balcony also serves as a concise metaphor for death, in a story where Francesca and Robert’s all-too-brief affair haunts them both for the rest of their lives, both because it happened and because of what it promised that could never be fulfilled.
The pair’s love interrupted still tastes bittersweet, but, honestly, it looks like they have such a naughty good time over those four days, it’s hard to feel too sorry for them.
The Bridges of Madison County runs through Sept. 23 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave. in Arlington, with a Pride Night performance on August 25. Tickets are $40 to $99. Call 703-820-9771, or visit www.sigtheatre.org.
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