If you didn’t already know of the major plot point of the musical “The Bridges of Madison County,” the Walton Arts Center has you covered as soon as you walk into the lobby. They staged the Tony Award-winning musical on Tuesday and will continue to stage it through Sunday afternoon. Their reminder comes in the form of their specialty cocktail available only for the run of the show, something called “The Affair,” and featuring Southern Comfort liqueur.
Indeed, infidelity becomes the central affair of the musical, based on the wildly popular 1992 book by Robert James Waller. The book was adapted into a 1995 movie, then by Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman into the musical that first came to Broadway in 2014.
I’ve neither read the book nor watched the movie, so I can’t offer comment about how well the stage show follows the format of those works. So a description of the show on stage now in Fayetteville will have to suffice.
What: “The Bridges of Madison County”
When: Daily through Sunday
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or tickets.waltonartscenter.org
When three of the four members of the Johnson family of Winterset, Iowa, leave for the Indianapolis State Fair to show off the prized steer of daughter Carolyn (played sharply by Caitlin Houlahan), it leaves Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley) alone for a few days. Or, at least as alone as someone can be under the gaze of nosy neighbors.
Winterset, Iowa, isn’t normally an exciting place, one is led to believe. But Robert (Andrew Samonsky) upsets that balance. He has come to the area courtesy of National Geographic magazine to photograph the area’s famous covered bridges. To most townsfolk, he’s a long-haired hippie and a bit of curiosity. For Francesca, who Robert meets while looking for the seventh and final of the covered bridges, he is a connection to her past life in Italy – Robert has recently visited her native Naples for a photographic assignment. The flirtation starts quickly and fluidly, and both are equally encouraging.
Robert is certainly more exciting in many ways than her husband Bud (Cullen R. Titmas). Or at least the 1965 version of Bud, nearly 20 years removed from the day he met her in Italy during the final days of World War II. Bud, at a bar in Indianapolis during the trip, laments he’s just the person that keeps the lights on at the family farm.
The audience is briefly transported to Italy, or to one of the namesake covered bridges courtesy of inventive stage work that dropped pieces from the rafters and onto the stage. Other set pieces, ushered on and off by members of the ensemble, had a certain choreography to them. It’s a very stylish show, with spot-on costuming and gorgeous lighting. You can see why it was nominated for a Tony for Best Lighting Design.
Francesca is ready to run away – first to Des Moines while Robert waits for word on his photos, then to New York or wherever his job takes him. But life at home calls, too. Literally calls, even, as her phone rings almost constantly with updates from the fair. Bud does keep the lights on. Their son Michael (John Campione) needs her to act as a buffer between him and Bud. And someone has to put dinner on the table.
The adaptation of “Bridges” comes from a strange place in that the story originated from a novel, although “Wicked” might serve as something of a successful model for that kind of endeavor. Songs are no second thought here, and live orchestra helped with that. I thought the players were strong and deftly understated in their performance last night.
Lyrically, it follows the script. We learn of lust and longing, of the questions of stability versus adventure. All of the voices were strong, including that of Samonsky, if you can imagine a singing version of Matthew McConaughey. Francesca’s soaring voice, courtesy of Elizabeth Stanley, is a thing to behold, too. Her vocal performance, however, is filtered through both an Italian accent and an operatic style. You might have to work very hard to understand what she’s singing; I must admit wasn’t always successful in discerning her lyrics and that proved frustrating at times.
But as a vehicle to bring a much-loved book to the stage, “The Bridges of Madison County” serves the purpose. The path we walk down may be pretty, and it may even have a picturesque covering. But the thing about bridges is they take us to the other side.