The Bridges of Madison County 


Through Sunday, Aug. 18

Kennedy Theatre, Raleigh

A disenchanted prairie housewife’s humdrum life is revitalized, for a moment, when a handsome, mysterious drifter drops in while her husband and kids are away. Yes, the plot’s a cliché, open-shut, and nearly off-color to boot—until the moment it isn’t, when an artist finds something unique, untold, or unheard in a theme we thought was worn out.

Composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown achieves this in the remarkable musical theater adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County. This sparkling Theatre Raleigh production does it justice, with a nine-piece orchestra scattered across designer Rebecca Leigh Johnson’s bucolic two-story set. Under Nathan Thomas’s discerning musical direction, the band and actors ably convey the sweeping, cinematic breadth of Brown’s award-winning, quicksilver score, which lifts the work well above its artistically humbler origins in a nineties potboiler novel—and above playwright Marsha Norman’s uneven script.

Brown’s genius and care is clear from the opener, “To Build a Home.” As his music gracefully transitions from the pensive European lyricism of Ariana Dewar’s solo cello to a forthright full-band American waltz, Brown’s lyrics take central character Francesca from Naples, in ruins at the end of the World War II, through her overnight marriage to an American soldier and to his farm home in Winterset, Iowa. Janine DiVita’s luminous voice captures Francesca’s operatic heights and brooding passions. As wandering National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, Patrick Oliver Jones soulfully navigates his wanderlust through gently restless period soft-rock.

Scott Wakefield brings a frank but harried bonhomie to Francesca’s farmer husband, Bud, and Heather Setzler steps out of her nosy-neighbor character to sell a tasty Patsy Cline knockoff, “Get Closer.” Director Lauren Kennedy Brady has crafted enviably deep-seated characters, but it’s a well-sung suite of songs’ incisive summations of larger stories that makes this show a bridge worth crossing.

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