It's hard to top Meryl Streep. The vaunted actress was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of a lonely Italian housewife in the film The Bridges of Madison County, but now actresses are being asked to make Francesca Johnson sing — literally and figuratively — in the musical version.
First it was Broadway darling Kelli O'Hara, who received a Tony nomination for her work. Now on the national tour it's Elizabeth Stanley, who is also a Broadway vet.
Stanley's faultless comic timing and silvery voice help keep the small, intimate show from being swallowed up by the massive space that is the Music Hall at Fair Park, turning "just another movie-to-musical adaptation" into a delicate and vulnerable experience.
The operatic folk/pop score by Jason Robert Brown is also a selling point. Brown's signature style can especially be heard on the songs "Another Life" and "It All Fades Away," but overall his Tony-winning music and lyrics sweep the love story along with soaring melodies.
There's just one main problem when your heroine is Italian: that accent.
Though she came over to Midwestern America decades ago as a war bride, Francesca still speaks and sings with a heavy, rolling Italian lilt, making it near impossible to understand half of what she's conveying. The show's opening song, "To Build a Home," relies almost entirely on the technical elements swirling around Francesca to set the scene, because her lyrics are incomprehensible.
But when she's understood, oh, does Stanley sparkle as Francesca. Marsha Norman's feisty book, based on the novel by Robert James Waller, places Francesca front and center, telling us of the brief but passionate affair she has with a visiting photographer (the hunky Andrew Samonsky). Instead of seeing the whirlwind romance through steamy flashbacks as her children, Michael and Carolyn, read a diary (like in the movie), the mostly chronological storytelling propels the action.
To help convey the busybody atmosphere of the Johnsons' small town, members of the ensemble remain onstage throughout, watching from chairs at the stage's sides and moving set pieces but lingering to eavesdrop for a second or two. This gives the show a sophisticated, surreal quality, highlighting the moral dilemma Francesca faces.
The most interested of the townsfolk is next-door neighbor Marge (a delightful Mary Callanan), who obsessively tracks the comings and goings of the handsome stranger Robert.
Though hardly involved with the affair, Francesca's two children (played by Caitlin Houlahan and Dallas native John Campione), are interesting characters in their own right, heightening the tension when Francesca considers abandoning her life — and them — to leave with Robert. Her husband Bud, however, is really only given moments to prove how little he understands his wife, whom he often praises for her beauty and not much else. Cullen R. Titmas is fine as Bud, but he's far less of a sympathetic character.
For something that was first a popular book, then a well-received movie, it's difficult to imagine how turning this story into a musical could bring out more layers. It's a pleasant surprise to find that it does.
The Bridges of Madison County plays at the Music Hall at Fair Park through February 14.