“The Bridges of Madison County” has all the components of a Harlequin Romance. There is a gorgeous farmer’s wife with a restless heart and shampoo-model hair. There are verdant vistas of the American Heartland. There is a tall dark stranger who has roamed the world but still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. There is an out-of-town husband, a loving but simple farmer whose idea of romance is a weekend in Des Moines. And there is lots of torrid sex, as the wife and the rugged stranger realize they cannot contain the forbidden passion that throbs within their breasts.
But for all the Hallmark Channel realness, Theo Ubique wrests a genuinely moving story of loss, longing and sacrifice in the musical based on the novel by Robert James Waller. Is the whole thing in constant danger of overheating like vegetable stew on a farmhouse stove in high summer? Yes. Even the iced tea glasses start sweating when Francesca (Kelli Harrington) meets Robert (Tommy Thurston.)
‘The Bridges of Madison County’ ★★★1⁄2 When: Through April 21 Where: Theo Ubique, 721 Howard St., Evanston Tickets: $39-$69 (includes dinner) Info: www.Theo-u.com
That the smolder doesn’t ignite into parody is either the doing of the Patron Saint of Iowa Housewives (who is invoked herein) or that of director Fred Anzevino and his marvelous cast. I’m going with the latter. And speaking of heat: Music director/pianist/arranger Jeremy Ramey helms a small, extraordinary string orchestra (guitarists Perry Cowdery and Cesar Romero, cellist Kat Tarko and violinist Simeon Tsanev) that makes Jason Robert Brown’s score sizzle like a character unto itself. The ensemble plays as one, as seamlessly joined as Fran and Robert.
Through Marsha Norman’s book and Brown’s lyrics, we learn Francesca was born and raised in Naples, Italy, where she fell in love with a soldier who never returned from World War II. After the war, she’s left as desolate as her bombed-out city. But as Francesca mournfully gazes out at the robust American ships in the harbor, she catches the eye of a dashing young soldier. Bud (Carl Herzog) whisks her far away from the ravages of war. Together they build a farm in Iowa and raise two hearty children.
When Harrington sings of Francesca’s journey from Italy to the world of corn and cows, two things happen. First, there’s the music. Harrington doesn’t seem to be singing the notes so much as the notes seem to be shimmering from her entire being. It’s sonic magic. Secondly, you can feel the push-pull of pain and wonder that Francesca feels at leaving the only home she’s known and creating one in a place she’s never dreamed of. “To Build a Home” is a near perfect distillation of regret and excitement wound together in an overwhelming tangle.
Bud’s off with the kids (Peyton Shaffer and Christopher Ratliff, endearingly believable as quarreling siblings) at the 4H Fair (there’s a terrific subplot involving a steer named Stevie) when photographer Robert stops at the farmhouse and asks Francesca for directions to the covered bridge he’s been assigned to shoot. The force field of chemistry between them is so strong you feel like you’re intruding. Before they say a word to each other, it’s clear that each is – as the kids say – shook. Together they are — as the lyrics put it — quicksand and flame. Brown’s lyrics are exquisite: In Robert, Francesca suddenly feels “the ache and the buzz of the girl that I was.” It’s pure attraction to be sure, but it’s also the rush of everything she’s lost, roiling to the surface.
Thurston reads a shade too young for the world-weary Robert, but that becomes negligible when he starts singing. Robert has several key musical passages that are as naked as music gets: Not a note of orchestration to accompany him, not so much as a pitch pipe to get him started. Thurston nails them, both technically and emotionally. And he’s a good foil for Herzog’s matter-of-fact, content-as-pie farmer Bud.
The supporting cast is a delight. Kate Harris is a goshdurn treasure as both a nosey (but good-hearted) neighbor and a radio chanteuse capable of landing a lyric that rhymes “Since I first saw your lips, that’s where I’ve been headin’ ” with “let’s not wait for Armageddon.” As neighboring farmer Charlie, Randolph Johnson brings down the house with “When I’m Gone,” a down-to-earth, raise-the-roof, gospel-inflected joyous noise that’ll (almost) make you feel OK about dying. As Robert’s first wife, Molly Le Captain’s delivery of “Another Life” makes it clear that the wandering photog didn’t spring fully formed like some cowboy version of Venus from a clamshell: Robert’s got baggage, and he’s nobody’s savior-god.
In the end, “Bridges” is an ode to maternal self-sacrifice. Roll your eyes if you will. Theo Ubique makes the choice complicated, believable and wrenching.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.