The stage is empty. On it stands a sole actress in a basic brown dress. The music begins and she sings the story of how she traveled from Italy to Iowa, through big towns and open plains. Around her, townspeople begin to carry in set pieces. Some fencing. A kitchen sink. Stairs. As she sings the last note, the ceiling of her house is lowered into place. In a span of a couple minutes, the stage has been transformed into that of a small farm town. This is Madison County.
“The Bridges of Madison County” was originally a novel written in 1992 and immediately rocketed to popularity. In fact, The New York Times likened it to 1992’s version of “Fifty Shades of Gray.” This was only exacerbated by the book’s adaptation into a movie featuring Clark Grant and Meryl Streep back in 1995. However, with it being so long since the story’s rise, I really have no idea why anyone thought to turn it into a Broadway musical back in 2014. The original Broadway show ran only four months and wasn’t considered especially successful. Despite this, the show managed to win not one, but TWO Tony Awards in a year with especially stiff competition. I’ve actually seen every show it was nominated against for Best Original Score. All of them (except maybe “Aladdin”) would have been more deserving.
I finally saw the piece during Central Piedmont Community College’s production, which ran from Sept. 22 to Oct. 1. “Bridges” tells the story of Francesca (Sarah Henkel), an Italian war bride who moved to Iowa with her husband Bud (Steven Martin) 14 years before the events of the musical take place. When her husband and two children leave to compete at the state fair, she is left alone for four days. Then Robert Kinkaid (Ryan Deal) happens. Robert is a photographer for National Geographic assigned to photograph the covered bridges in the area. After a chance encounter, the two quickly escalate their acquaintanceship into an affair. The show seems to establish that Robert and Francesca are the equivalent of soulmates and that their love for one another is meant to be. However, upon Bud’s return, Francesca’s love for her kids causes her to ultimately choose not to run away with Robert. Instead, she lives out her life with a husband she doesn’t quite care for. Bud must live with a wife he loves but whose heart belongs to Robert. And Robert spends his time alone, waiting for a call from Francesca that will never come. No one wins. They all lose.
Maybe this sounds like a poignant and moving story, a tale of love and heartbreak. It could be, if not for the fact there seems to be little motivation behind the main plot. If the audience never met Bud and the children, it’d be a lot easier to get behind Francesca cheating on him with Robert. However, we do meet Bud and there seems to nothing particularly wrong with him. He looks out for Francesca, consistently wants to talk to her despite being away, and sings about how he wishes he could take her back to visit Italy. The only thing negative we really learn about him is that he does have high expectations of his children and bit of a temper. Still, Francesca’s cheating seems to come out of a place of boredom and a feeling of loneliness. She’s an outsider in a small town and jumps at the chance to talk with (and then have sex with) another outsider. Though we eventually learn of her somewhat tragic backstory in the second act, the audience has already formed their opinion of her by then. Since we’ve met Bud, the audience just feels sorry for him. We also feel fairly sorry for Robert, who falls for a woman who is actively pursuing him but cannot be with him due to her marital status. Still, when he suggested she leave her whole family to be with him, I rolled my eyes. They are both extremely flawed romantic leads.
I don’t hate this show. It’s just not that great, largely due to a plotline that feels outdated and unoriginal. The events of the show may take place in 1965, but it largely feels like the show may have been written in 1965 as well. One stark example is when Francesca’s two children grow up to be “successful” adults. Her son goes on to graduate from medical school and become a doctor. Her daughter gets married at the age of 18 and has a child. I realize this musical takes place in a different time period, but that doesn’t mean every character has to fall into a stereotyped social role. Historical fiction, including theater, can be done well and have dynamically written female characters. This just isn’t one of those shows.
However, I cannot fault Central Piedmont Community College with these issues. They did not write the script. The show was staged in the Halton Theater, which gave the show a feel of professionalism that I think was necessary due to the aforementioned problems. It also allowed the show to have a set design that was simultaneously minimalist and elaborate. The set pieces themselves were flown in from the fly system or pushed on stage by cast members. All of it effectively encapsulated the time period and setting. I’m quite fond of CPCC’s rendering of the covered bridge, a piece made with three open wooden outlines that form the overall shape of the bridge. Because it was not closed off or completed, the actors were able to move through it easier and the audience had a better view. In the background, the production used a lit screen of changing colors to evoke different moods and times throughout the show.
The actors in the show do their absolute best to breathe life into a stagnant script. Though they can’t quite push through the show’s plot, the actors are all quite talented and inhabit the personas they take on. Sarah Henkel’s operatic voice as Francesca fills a whole auditorium. It plays especially well during her duet with Ryan Deal’s Robert, “Falling Into You.” However, the best performances came from two side characters. Olivia Aldridge, who plays Francesca’s daughter Carolyn, shows serious promise for a young actress. Not only can you tell she is a powerful singer just from ensemble numbers, she also makes you root for a character that serves little to no purpose in this show. Francesca’s nosy neighbor Marge, played by Taffy Allen, also has a fun solo number that was quite possibly the highlight of the night. The comedic relief was needed and appreciated.
I wish I had more good things to say about this show, I really do. It suffers from a poor script and an outdated plot line. The music, though award-winning, isn’t particularly memorable despite the talented voices in the cast. However, I must acknowledge that while I don’t think this musical will be loved by young people, it absolutely delighted the senior citizens in the audience. I believe this is largely in part to nostalgia for the famous book and movie. Ultimately, I believe that CPCC did the best they could with the material they were given. They had a strong cast with impressive vocals, a unique set design and a talented orchestra. However, even this couldn’t overcome a truly mediocre plot.