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Home Reviews Theater “The Bridges of Madison County” is a lush, romantic experience

“The Bridges of Madison County” is a lush, romantic experience

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Kate Baldwin is holding a camera and Nicholas Rodriguez is talking to Kate.
Kate Baldwin as Francesca, and Nicholas Rodriguez as Robert in “The Bridges of Madison County” at Bucks County Playhouse through September 10, 2023. Photo by Joan Marcus.
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It is rare to find a musical, much less any show, that gives its audiences the experience of a truly sensual, loving relationship unfolding before their eyes. One of these rare musicals is The Bridges of Madison County, now being presented at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, PA. The musical, with a lush, nearly operatic score by Jason Robert Brown, is guaranteed to touch the heart, reminding you of times in your life when nothing felt so right as your love for another.

The show takes place mostly in the small town of Winterset, Iowa in 1965. We are introduced to the Johnson family: mother Francesca, an Italian WWII war bride; father Bud; daughter Carolyn and son Michael. Bud, Carolyn, and Michael leave for Indianapolis, where Carolyn will show her prize steer in a national competition. Francesca looks forward to a break from the routine of her life until photographer Robert Kincaid, on assignment for National Geographic to shoot the famed covered bridges in the county, comes asking for directions to the last bridge. Francesca rides with him along the back roads, invites him in for iced tea on their return, and makes him dinner. The two start to recognize an unspoken attraction.

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As the days pass, Francesca has distracted phone conversations with Bud and puts off invitations from her neighbors, Marge and Charlie, in order to spend more time with Robert. One fateful night, Francesca and Robert dance, lyrically expressing their feelings for each other, leading to Robert spending the night — which is noticed by Marge and Charlie. After spending the next day together in Des Moines, Robert asks Francesca to leave Winterset behind and come with him.

Composer Jason Robert Brown, who won a 2014 Tony Award for his score, came up with luscious, soaring music that not only fits the varying moods of the characters but also manages to blend an undertone of country music with operatic lyrical flights. The Bridges of Madison County could, with a little work in adapting Marsha Norman’s book into recitative, become an opera on its own.

Director Hunter Foster, who played Bud in the show’s 2014 Broadway run and is an artistic associate and frequent director at the Playhouse, has directed his cast with a fluidity of movement matched only by that of the creative scenic designs of Anna Louizos. The main story of the attraction between Francesca and Robert gains power from the acting skills and magnificent singing voices of Kate Baldwin and Nicholas Rodriguez. Their romance, and its expression in word and action, grows naturally, and one is as swept away by their intensity as their characters are by the depth of their emotions. 

Bart Shatto’s Bud has a thankless task: to show a man who is so satisfied with his life that he can barely understand his wife’s growing discontent and homesickness, keeping in his memory the vision of the girl he married and still loves and saddened that he cannot do more for her. Bud is not the villain of the piece, and Shatto walks that line very carefully.

The Johnson children — anxious Carolyn, who like her father, loves farm life, and rebellious Michael, feeling thwarted by his father’s rules and wanting to pursue a life removed from farm work — are able to be captured by actors Emily Pellecchia and Thomas Cromer, embodying the spirit of children fast approaching adulthood, wanting while dreading what’s to come for them. Humor also comes from the interplay between Nikki Yarnell and Mark Megill as the couple next door.

Praise also goes to lighting designer Paul Miller who fills the Iowa sky along the back wall with the blues and pinkish-oranges of summery country days and nights. Lauren T. Roark’s costumes look lived in and fit the styles of the Midwest in the 1960s.

Musical director Keith Levenson has assembled a fine ten-piece orchestra composed of two guitarists, a percussionist, and a string sextet. Special credit goes to cellist Patty Gonsky, who starts the show with an insinuatingly rich solo that captures Francesca’s moods and emotions as we first see her and is reprised throughout the show.

The Bridges of Madison County is a romantic delight for the late summer, an appealing tale of finding romance when it is least expected, and the strengths found in family and small-town life. It has a masterful score performed by an outstanding singing cast, from the leads to the chorus. It will reinforce your faith in the power of love. It is another excellent musical production from the Bucks County Playhouse, and I encourage making the trip to New Hope to see it.

The Bridges of Madison County is presented by the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, PA, through September 10, 2023. For more information or to order tickets, call 215-862-2121 or visit bcptheater.org.

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Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.