Review: ‘Bridges of Madison County’ explores passionate love with beauty and tenderness
“It starts with the light,” says photographer Robert Kincaid, a stranger who’s blown into a small Iowa town on assignment from National Geographic to capture its rustic and iconic bridges. “It can change the way you see.”
The way he sees Italian-born housewife Francesca, a World War II bride swept up by an American GI to build a comfortable yet stifling rural midcentury Middle West American family-focused life, utterly seduces her by making her remember the parts of herself she left behind.
Their blissful three days together while Francesca’s husband and children are off to the state fair provide the fundamental love story of “The Bridges of Madison County,” the Tony Award-winning musical based on Robert James Waller’s 1992 best-selling novel that was also adapted for the screen in 1995 by Clint Eastwood. It’s not quite a bodice ripper, but its phenomenal success speaks to a deep-seated desire for the fulfillment of romantic fantasy. Though more sentimental than heartfelt, it celebrates love in many of its forms, and acknowledges the pain that comes from having to choose between passion and commitment.
The musical is by far the story’s most sophisticated iteration—for its narrative structure as well as its gorgeous score, and its West Michigan premiere at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo is all in the family. Farmers Alley founding members and husband and wife team Jeremy Koch and Denene Mulay Koch play Robert and Francesca; their real-life children Jason and Carly play Francesca’s children on stage; and they’re all directed by family matriarch, Board Vice President, and long-time Kalamazoo-area director Kathy Mulay—who, according to her program notes, has envisioned bringing this production to life with her beloveds since she saw it on Broadway a few years ago.
Kalamazoo audiences have watched Denene and Jeremy fall in love on stage time and time again, and a major early career highlight for them both was playing Maria and Tony in a national tour of “West Side Story.” As Francesca and Robert, another pair of star-crossed lovers, though this time during midlife, the heat between them is palpable, and their characters build together appropriately as her long-denied longings and subsequent dilemma becomes clear.
No doubt the joy of watching this family at work together is a significant draw for many ticket holders; however that’s not to diminish the artistry this show achieves in its own right, made possible by excellent performances and beautiful design. Denene’s voice is warm and pretty, technically skillful, and well suited to the lovely music that ranges from folk to country to pop with more than a little operatic power, and  with exceptional music direction from Catherine A. Walker. And her duets with Jeremy are among the show’s sweetest numbers, including “Wondering,” “Falling Into You,” and Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles.”
Yet some of the most evocative work on stage comes from the supporting cast. Audrey Filson’s voice is especially bright and clear in “Another Life,” a wonderful linchpin of the motif of past selves that reverberates throughout the nearly three-hour show as dancers twirling through the action in a continuous pas de deus. Zoe Vonder Haar is a delightfully spunky Marge, and has a wonderful partner in Kenneth Derby as husband Charlie. Together they’re a hoot as the nosy neighbors and well-worn marriage survivors who show the depth and humor of love that transcends romance. And Christopher Harrod is wonderful as Francesca’s husband Bud, the utterly likable simple yet good man who lets loose his undeniable soulfulness in “When I’m Gone.”
And yet perhaps most moving of all are the ways the exquisite design elements guide the emotional roller coaster of the narrative and create the time period—1965—as important context that sets up personal change and evolution at the start of greater cultural upheaval and transition. Wonderful period kitchen appliances and props from Jody Badalamenti add verisimilitude to Jeff Lindquist’s innovative scenic design that delineates multiple indoor and outdoor spaces, from the kitchen to the bedroom to a bar and the state fair as well as the romantic covered bridge with a muti-leveled set from which a bed and a trunk that turns into a car pop out.
And the beauty of this functional set, and perhaps the story itself, starts with the light, as Robert says to Francesca. It makes possible and changes our way of seeing, and here we are guided by the sure hand of Lighting Designer Lanford J. Potts. The romance moves from tender to impassioned, the story complicated by events of the past, the seduction made complete, at turns, with shifts from subtle clouds against a changing wide open azure sky, the pink sun rays at a slant, the golden haze of memory, the pensive shadowy blue of the night, with a dark sky brightened by an enormous full moon and speckled with constellations. The simple story becomes rich and the narrative turns emboldened with Potts’s inspired design.
There are so many reasons to see this sumptuous show. Whether for its beautiful music, stunning visual display, talented performances, romantic story, or the love to be seen on and off the stage, Farmers Alley’s “The Bridges of Madison County” is a sweet night at the theater.