LCP's 'Bridges of Madison county' spans a lifetime of longing
By MARILYN JOZWIK
Published April 9, 2018
A couple things have to happen to make the simple story of “The Bridges of Madison County,” currently playing at Lake Country Playhouse, work.
First, you have to feel a sense of yearning by the show’s main character, Francesca – a beautiful Italian immigrant who finds herself in the middle of an Iowa cornfield married to a farmer in 1965. You can check that box with the finely-tuned, emotion-filled character played by Katie Berg.
Next, you have to feel the chemistry between her and the photographer who stops by Francesca’s farm to get directions for an assignment while her husband and kids are at a state fair hoping to bring home a blue ribbon for a prized steer. You can check that box too -- Eric Madson as Robert is wonderfully in tune with Berg’s Francesca.
The musical, based on the novel by Robert Waller, features music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Marsh Norman. The Lake Country show is directed by Breanne Brennan and Sandra Baker Renick.
The music serves to enhance all the emotions going on here. Berg’s and Madson’s lonely characters are stretched to peaks of longing, lust and love, carried along gorgeously -- flowing like a river with the help of guitar, bass, violin, cello and piano.
The story goes beyond Francesca and Robert with moments for Francesca’s husband, Bud, and their two children, Michael and Carolyn, as well as neighbors Charlie and Marge. Long after the torrid affair, we learn how the characters through the years have impacted their lives.
Act I sets the stage for the romance, and by the end Francesca and Robert are off to the bedroom. In Act II, they spend more time in the bedroom, as well as singing about their love with saccharine sentiments like: “You surround me, you connect me,” “I know your fate has found me” and “there’s nothing in this world but us.” But at some point in Act II one can’t help but feeling, OK, these two are gaga over each other. We get it. Enough already.
Nonetheless, the two sing beautifully. Berg’s lovely, classic soprano voice easily handles the lilting melodies. Madson’s fine tenor has a country western vibe, adding well-placed wistful inflections to his ballads. Their performances are riveting.
Bridge to romance
Fortunately, there’s some well-done comic relief provided by Rebecca Richards and Jim Baker playing Francesca’s neighbors. Richards, especially, has the audience howling as the busybody who spies on her neighbors through a set of binoculars. Though she seems to know exactly what’s going on with Francesca, Marge casts no judgments and is as good a neighbor as one could want. There is a funny, yet touching, scene, in which Marge asks Charlie what he would do if she were caught having an affair. “Both of us are where we want to be,” he says simply.
But this show really showcases the considerable talents of Berg as Francesca. From the opening we can feel her longing as she stands alone onstage with photographs of both her original home in Naples and her new home in America on the wall behind her.
We meet her family in their simple farm kitchen, her husband (Carl Liden) and their two children, Michael (Tik Schlissel) and Carolyn (Katie McCaskey), as they bicker out the door on their way to the fair. In Berg’s body language you can see Francesca’s malaise, dutifully playing the wife and mother, yet wishing for something more, wishing for the connections she felt back in Naples.
Then along comes Robert, a rugged National Geographic photographer lost en route to the last of the bridges he’s to photograph. Those early scenes are precious as Francesca tries to be polite and Robert not too forward. Berg’s accent gives charm and a bit of naivete to her lines. When the two enjoy a glass of brandy from an old, unopened bottle, Berg’s Francesca blanches at the first taste, then admits coyly, “I like how it burns a little at the end.”
The supporting cast is also quite capable. Liden’s Bud is a good fit for the Iowa farmer and devoted father and husband, who goes off to the fair with his two taciturn teenagers. I loved the scene when he returns exhausted from the fair with his difficult kids, who continue fighting once they’re home. He orders the whole family out for ice cream, like a drill sergeant, in a most relatable scene. Bud – who says “I’m the guy who keeps the lights on” -- elicits lots of empathy as he senses at one point that his love for Francesca is not returned.
McCaskey and Schlissel are also effective in their portrayals of the squabbling siblings. McCaskey has a real take-charge attitude and is most engaging. Schlissel’s Michael – who has no desire to follow in his dad’s footsteps -- does a really nice job in a scene with his dad when tempers flair to a physical exchange.
Ava Bush as Robert’s ex-wife Marian sings a lovely, soulful “Another Life,” a beautiful dreamy sequence in which she describes her relationship with the enigmatic photographer.
Music director Catherine Pfeiler gets a rich, full sound from the cast, including an eight-member ensemble, whose harmonies are nicely done, although they are often relegated to singing “ahs.” In Act I, they sing the melodious tunes with a gusto usually reserved for making a statement. Perhaps they could be toned down a bit, as they were in Act II.
The four-piece orchestra wrings lots of emotion from this music and are gorgeous under the soloists. The quartet features the driving sounds of Bill Drimel’s guitar and Eric Chesney’s vibrant violin, as well as Julie Johnson on piano and Lindsay Patterson on cello. Drimel also plays bass on some pieces.
Jim Padovano’s set design is quite ambitious, but perhaps a bit too much so. The farmhouse kitchen – featuring stove and fridge, is rotated in a number of times, as are the large bridge arches, creating perhaps more set movement than is needed. Once in place, however, they offer the characters sturdy, substantial, visually appealing surroundings. I especially enjoyed the comfort level of Berg’s Francesca in her small farm kitchen – retrieving iced tea from the fridge and glasses from the cupboards, as well as “cooking” on the stove as though she’s lived there for years.
If you go:
Who: Lake Country Playhouse
What: “Bridges of Madison County”
When: Through April 22
Where: 221 E. Capitol Drive, Hartland