Francesca Johnson, the Italian war bride who has been married to an Iowa farmer for 18 years, could easily have locked the door when Robert Kincaid, an interesting stranger who just happens to be a photographer for National Geographic, drives up to the family’s farmhouse in a pick-up truck and asks for directions to one of the fabled local bridges he has been assigned to shoot. Such a response would have made perfect sense given that she was in the house by herself, with her husband and two kids off at a State Fair in Indianapolis for a few days.
‘THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY’
When: Through Aug. 13
Where: Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire
Tickets: $50 – $60
Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission
But something in Francesca compels her to welcome the stranger inside. And the conversation that follows, along with a few shared glasses of brandy, a home-cooked dinner, and the sort of instant chemistry between a man and woman that has a life of its own, quickly works its magic. And as they explain later in “Before and After You” — one of the many beautiful, feverish songs in Jason Robert Brown’s musical, “The Bridges of Madison County,” now in a scorchingly sensual, deeply insightful production at the Marriott Theatre — stars Kathy Voytko and Nathaniel Stampley forge a relationship not easily forgotten. Their encounter will forever change them in the most profound ways.
In lesser hands, the musical — with a book by Marsha Norman based on Robert James Waller’s 1992 best-selling novel — might easily be written off as the thinking person’s Harlequin romance. But it has been turned into an instant classic by the combination of Brown’s ravishing score, Nick Bowling’s profoundly insightful direction, breathtaking performances by Voytko and Stampley (two Chicago-bred actors with formidable Broadway credits), and yes, a bridge possessed of a genius all its own (an inspired fold-up design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec). The show’s original 2014 Broadway edition ran for just three months. There can be no doubt that were the Marriott production to open there now it could run for years.
“Bridges” begins with Francesca’s back story (which unfolds through William Carlos Angulo’s deft choreography) as the adult Francesca sings the narrative (“To Build a Home”) that is danced by her younger incarnation (Allyson Graves). Living in Naples, and surrounded by the devastation of World War II, an offer of marriage from Bud (Bart Shatto), an American soldier with a family farm in Iowa, comes with the promise of a new, if radically different life. Francesca settles in the U.S. and adapts. But now (it is 1965), she yearns for something beyond her role as a capable wife and mother. And there he is, Robert — the man she jokingly calls “the patron saint of an Iowa housewife.”
Robert, who lives in the state of Washington, comes with a back story, too. He is a loner who travels the world and captures it all brilliantly with his camera. But he feels connected to no one, despite memories of his ex-wife, Marian, a young Joni Mitchell-like folk singer (sublimely played by the charismatic, rich-voiced Emily Berman). Francesca revives something in Robert, just as he does in her. And yes, there is an intense sexual connection. But more than that there is the sense that each of them sees each other in ways they have long hungered to be known.
Voytko is a great beauty of an actress who emanates warmth and depth, and sings with soul-bearing honesty, not to mention a subtle Italian accent. The fervent-voiced Stampley (a memorable Don Quixote in Marriott’s “The Man of La Mancha”) radiates heat and truth, and gives Robert just enough vulnerability, wariness and sexual allure to seal the deal. The two never leave any doubt that they are made for each other, and their honeyed voices blend ideally.
While the score (enhanced by Ryan T. Nelson’s expert music direction and a fine orchestra led by Patti Garwood), is semi-operatic for the two leads, there is plenty of variety along the way, with a rousing country music number at the State Fair sung by Danni Smith, and more. There is just enough sub-plot to distract from the heat of the central relationship, with Francesca’s husband, Bud (a purposefully under-developed character) coping with his rebellious teenage son, Michael (volatile Tanner Hake), and fierce-minded younger daughter, Carolyn (feisty Brooke MacDougal). Offering zesty comic relief are the Johnsons’ long-married neighbors — warm-hearted Marge (Wydetta Carter), who trains her binoculars on Francesca, but also supports her, and good-natured Charlie (Terry Hamilton).
But it is Voytko and Stampley who drive this show, setting the cornfields of Iowa on fire in the process.