Silk purse/sow’s ear

Cast Robert James Waller’s dazzlingly awful 1992 novel out of your mind. While you’re at it, you might as well forget Clint Eastwood’s almost-as-stinky 1995 film adaptation. This is, yes, still the soapy, predictable story of a four-day love affair between an Italian-American housewife and an itinerant photographer in 1960s Iowa, and until the last ten minutes of the show you’ll be (at least) three steps ahead of the plot. Somehow, though, bookwriter Marsha Norman and composer Jason Robert Brown have managed to dig behind Waller’s laughably purple prose to uncover a surprisingly effective portrait of two lonely people who find themselves awakened by a chance meeting.

The key – and the element that makes the show a must-see, whatever your opinion of the (dismal) source material – is Brown’s beautiful score. Norman has done an admirable job of stripping away the novel’s (many) excesses so that the story is told simply and clearly, but the songs are the star here. The show was a relatively fast flop on Broadway, but this is among the best theatre scores of the last decade, although it’s not always easy listening. Brown isn’t afraid of dissonance, and he isn’t afraid to experiment with song structure, but this is a lush, lyrical, haunting set of songs that have an astonishing emotional pull. It’s a pleasure, too, to hear Brown’s own orchestrations for a ten-piece band in a space as small as the Menier; under Tom Murray’s musical direction, the band gives a superlative account of this gorgeous but demanding music.

The production, on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag. There’s no faulting the performances, although neither Jenna Russell nor Edward Baker-Duly have the pristine, lightning-in-a-bottle voices of their Broadway counterparts. They’re both good singers – really good singers – but this music stretches them. That said, the show gains immeasurably from being seen in such a small space, and Russell in particular is quietly heartbreaking, offering a delicate, finely-shaded portrayal that gives Francesca a level of complexity you’d never imagine possible from reading the novel. There’s fine support, too, from Gillian Kirkpatrick as a nosy but caring neighbour, and (in several small roles) from Shanay Holmes, whose rendition of the lovely ‘Another Life’ is the production’s musical highlight.

Less impressive is John Bausor’s overly-complicated set, a combination of turntables and flimsy sliding panels that sometimes threatens to bring this already slow-paced show to a grinding halt. Yes, Tal Rosner’s video projections (a starlit sky, Iowa cornfields, a small-town Main Street) look exquisite against the bleached wood planks of those wooden panels – but at the performance I attended (a very late preview) a truck unit momentarily juddered to a halt before it moved all the way offstage, the two sliding wooden panels wobbled every time they moved in a way that called into question whether they’ll survive the run (I’ll find out, I suppose, I’m going back for the final matinee), the door of Francesca’s fridge kept stubbornly refusing to close, and several ominous crashes were heard from backstage during the (numerous) set-changes. It’s one of those sets that would look great if everything worked, particularly as sensitively lit by Tim Lutkin – and it’s great to see designers trying to push the boundaries of what can be achieved in a venue with so little backstage space, but the show might have been better served by a simpler design.

That said, though, Brown’s score is so lovely, and Jenna Russell’s performance is so exquisite, that any shortcomings in the production surrounding them seem almost irrelevant. I don’t know whether I’d call this a great musical, and I wouldn’t say it was a completely unimpeachable production, but the good elements are so good that it’s more than worth an evening of your time. To draw music this beautiful, and a performance so brimming with yearning, out of a novel as truly, thoroughly, overwhelmingly bad as The Bridges of Madison County is a remarkable achievement. You aren’t going to get very many opportunities to hear a live performance of this score in this country, and Jenna Russell is doing some of the very best work of her career. Don’t miss it.

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