By Susannah Whitman
If you’re looking for thought-provoking and beautiful theater, Utah Repertory Theater’s production of Bridges of Madison County is the production to see. Based on the 1995 film and the 1992 book, the Broadway production won two Tony’s in 2014 for its score and orchestrations. And those Tony’s were well-deserved—Jason Robert Brown’s music is stirring and powerful.
The musical follows the story of Francesca (Erin Royall Carlson), an Italian woman living in Iowa during the 1960’s. Twenty years ago, she married an American soldier and moved onto his farm, where she now cooks and cleans for her husband and two children. While her family is away at the State Fair, Francesca meets Robert Kincaid (Kevin Goertzen), a traveling photographer for the National Geographic, and the two feel an undeniable attraction to each other.
Bridges of Madison County ticks all the classic romance novel boxes. A restless, unsatisfied housewife. A kind, but oblivious husband out of town. A hot summer’s day. An exciting stranger asking for directions. But the story transcends the tired “bodice-ripper” formula. The characters are full and 3-dimensional, with thoughts and feelings beyond the physical. We gain a deep understanding of each of the characters—who they are and what they want, and why. Francesca’s classic romance-novel choice—steady husband or exciting stranger—is not just about physical desire, but about belonging and meaning and identity.
The world of the play is full and developed, as well. Utah Rep has found a beautiful new home in the Regent Black Box Theatre at the Eccles. Parking is the same for the Black Box as it is for mainstage productions, but you’ll go to a separate box office to the southeast of the building to pick up your tickets. After that, it’s up one flight of stairs (or one flight on the elevator) to the theatre space. Seating is general admission, so I recommend getting there early if you have a seating preference.
The set design by Chase Ramsey is simple and versatile. Set pieces move in and out to create a kitchen, a car, a bridge—and multiple set pieces could be turned in different directions to be used in different ways. The two red ladders used to symbolize the bridge itself was especially beautiful. And the ladders never really leave the stage—even when they aren’t used, they stand as a reminder of the choice Francesca is facing. Projections are also used to clarify location, but to be honest, they weren’t necessary. The projection frame was high enough above the action that I almost never watched it, and the rest of the set already made it clear where we were.
Lighting (David Anthony-Ken De Carolis) and sound design (Anthony Swanson) also enhanced the production. Set decoration by Sherri Holcombe was beautiful. Michael Nielson’s costumes were by far, one of my favorite technical elements of the production. Nielson’s work is always strong, but he outdid himself in The Bridges of Madison County. The costumes were period and status-appropriate and told us a lot about each character. Jeanne McGuire’s musical direction, and the work of the orchestra, was also especially beautiful. It was a large orchestra for a small theatre, but nothing ever felt out of place.
Under the direction of Johnny Hebda, Chase Ramsey, and JayC Stoddard, the cast did some marvelous storytelling. In the starring role of Francesca, Carlson was perfectly cast. She plays a woman whose youth and beauty can still clearly be seen, but whose soft edges have been hardened just a little bit by time on the farm. Carlson is both vulnerable and strong, and her chemistry with Goertzen is palpable. Goertzen brings perfect charm to the role of Robert Kincaid, and his singing voice rings through the rafters with power.
Rilee Crump and Nic Thomas are wonderful in their roles of the teenage Carolyn and Michael. They come at their teenage angst from different angles, but both are recognizable. Josh Richardson gives a deeply moving performance as Francesca’s husband, Bud. A less capable actor might have fallen into the trap of “sitcom dad”—always irritated, a little dumb, and overly humorous. But Richardson brings a realism to the role that makes it far more interesting. His anger and impatience come from a place of genuine concern, and we sense that he truly does love Francesca—he just doesn’t understand her. There are moments of humor, but they’re tempered with honesty.
Elizabeth Hansen and Gary Pimentel are perfect as Francesca’s kindly neighbors Marge and Charlie. Both of them are tremendously funny, and their honest performances paint a nostalgic picture of married life in Iowa. This is another place where actors could easily fall into the world of caricature, but both Hansen and Pimentel are delightfully genuine. Their relationship serves as a foil to Francesca’s relationships with Robert and Bud. The talented members of the ensemble—Karli Rose Lowry, Ardon Smith, and Amanda Van Orden—each played multiple roles with excellence. Van Orden’s number as Marian was one of the highlights of the show.
There’s plenty of sizzle in this story…those weighted questions, those furtive looks. You can almost feel the longing on Francesca’s skin as she stands in her farmhouse kitchen. But the story is so much more than an Iowa housewife’s desire. That desire is central to a story that is about choices and power and questions of right and wrong. Like so many of the productions we’ve seen from Utah Repertory Theatre, “Bridges of Madison County” will leave you with a full heart, and plenty to think about.
Utah Repertory Theater Company presents The Bridges of Madison County by Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman
Regent Street Black Box, George S and Dolores Dore Eccles Theater, 131 South Main Street Salt Lake City, UT
December 1-10 Friday, Saturday, and Sunday 7:30 PM 2:00 PM Matinee on Saturday and Sunday
Utah Rep Facebook Page
Bridges of Madison County Facebook Event