Both musicals underperformed in their original Broadway versions, running for a combined total of just 185 performances. The critical and popular success of 2023’s “Parade,” a limited engagement starring Ben Platt as a Jewish man confronting antisemitism and false accusations of murder in early-20th-century Georgia, served as something of a vindication of Brown’s artistic vision and certainly of his gorgeous score.
“The Bridges of Madison County,” then, re-emerges at a prime moment for Brown, and as an opportunity for another listen to the swoony, all-American lushness of his music and lyrics. The occasion gives audiences plenty to savor over the course of two hours and 40 minutes in Signature’s larger theater, the Max, even if the story of lovelorn Francesca (Erin Davie) and heartthrob Robert (Mark Evans) seems to tumble out of the gauzy, shopworn pages of a Harlequin romance.
The production, handsomely guided by director Ethan Heard and choreographer Kelly Crandall d’Amboise, buoyantly showcases Davie’s supple soprano. (D.C. theatergoers may remember Davie as Violet, half of the conjoined Hilton Sisters act in Henry Krieger and Bill Russell’s “Side Show” at the Kennedy Center in 2014.) Here, Davie portrays an Italian war bride cum lonely farm wife in 1960s Iowa who falls hard for a National Geographic photographer shooting Madison County’s renowned covered bridges.
Although Francesca’s Neapolitan accent sounds at times as if it were cultivated in fields where shamrocks grow, Davie gives a sympathetic account of a woman forced for too long to narrow her romantic gaze. And Evans sensitively builds a portrait of a wanderer finally looking at life beyond a camera lens. He’s a Marlboro Man with a soul.
The camera’s eye becomes the poetic conveyance for discovering love, much the way an artist’s canvas envelops the emotional terrain of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” “It’s like all you didn’t know that you were waiting for is just outside the frame,” Robert sings in the lovely Act 1 ballad “The World Inside a Frame.” “And it can change/ The way you see …. ”
Brown’s music, orchestrated here for 10 string instruments, a keyboard and percussion, and conducted by William Yanesh, revels in mid-century sound: I hear echoes of Dave Brubeck, Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Buffy Sainte-Marie, a bit of country here and there, and maybe even a little Aaron Copland. It’s exquisitely arranged, a world inside a score. Under Laura Bergquist’s musical direction, many of the songs illuminate secret thoughts — reflections of isolated lives. These are yearning beings living in the solitary confinement of unfulfilled hopes.
Robert and Francesca’s mutual seduction takes up all of Act 1 — a slow dance into Francesca’s bed while her earnest farmer husband, Bud (Cullen R. Titmas), is off at a 4-H fair in Indiana with their antagonistic teenage kids (Julia Wheeler Lennon and Nolan Montgomery). It plays out on Lee Savage’s runway set, a stage of wooden planks splitting the audience, bleachers-style, along both sides. At one end is Francesca’s kitchen and at the other, the house of their eternally fussing neighbors, Charlie (Christopher Bloch) and nosy but reliable Marge (Rayanne Gonzales). Savage cleverly conjures a Madison County bridge through the simple act of flipping a few raised panels.
You don’t have to have read the book (or seen the popular 1995 movie with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep) to feel you’ve been here before: “The Bridges of Madison County” unfolds as an easily digestible, sentimental throwback — Waller is reported to have written the novella in 11 days. The second act of Norman’s faithful script has a much heavier chronological lift, requiring the narrative to spin doggedly through the decades. After all the intensity of the smoldering Act 1, the march to the final curtain feels drawn out, predictable.
Along the way, though, Heard and company animate enough winning moments to make even the creakier passages feel compelling. Marina Pires offers a smashing turn, for instance, as Robert’s ex-wife Marian, singing the sultry “Another Life,” and Davie delivers a second-act aria, “Almost Real,” with a plaintiveness that gives Francesca’s Naples backstory a poignant immediacy.
The confines of the 270-seat Max are a boon to the musical, too: Sitting so close to Davie’s Francesca, you can almost feel the breeze of sadness blow by as she glides past. And Brown’s melodies form the bridge that draws you even closer.
The Bridges of Madison County, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, book by Marsha Norman. Directed by Ethan Heard. Music directions, Laura Bergquist; choreography, Kelly Crandall D’Amboise; set, Lee Savage; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Jesse Belsky; sound, Eric Norris. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Sept. 17 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. sigtheatre.org.
POST AUTHOR: Peter Marks