If you weren’t around when Robert James Waller’s novel The Bridges of Madison County dropped in 1992, you probably can’t fully appreciate its cultural impact. It was, in retrospect, the Midwestern equivalent of 50 Shades of Grey: Poorly written treacle masquerading as grand romance. It was almost a parody of itself from the start, with a love interested who was masculine and mysterious, but also a feminist and vegetarian. (The message was: Adultery is wrong, unless it’s with the right guy.) Waller even included a foreword to the book insisting the story was true (it was not) and asserting that anyone not moved by his prose was a soulless ghoul.
I hated it, of course … at least until Clint Eastwood’s 1995 film adaptation. It took Hollywood’s least sentimental director to turn a work of literary diabetes into a palatable meal. Waller’s follow-up book was a comparative flop (critics never liked him, and audiences caught on)and the property drifted off, like Brigadoon, into the mists of poor decision-making, like mullets and Alicia Silverstone movies after Clueless.
At least until composer Robert Jason Brown got ahold of it, and crafted a musical version (with book by Marsha Norman) in 2014. Despite a Tony Award for best score (it bested If/Then, which just closed in Dallas), Bridges lasted just 100 performances, so a tour was not a certainty. But there it is, planted into Fair Park Music Hall for a two-week run. At capacity, almost more people could see it here than in New York — its Broadway home was fewer than 1,100 seats, not even a third of the Music Hall’s cavernous auditorium.
Which may be the principal failing of this production. Form the opening song (more like an aria), Elizabeth Stanley as Francesca — the Italian war bride living a life of quiet desperation in 1965 Iowa —cannot be heard or understood. It’s as if the actress wasn’t prepared for the vastness of the space she would be expected to fill in what’s essentially a chamber musical (albeit one that runs nearly three hours). Her Arianna-Huffington-speaking-Russian-with-socks-in-her-mouth accent garbles the lyrics; it’s not until Andrew Samonsky as the sexy NatGeo photographer Robert Kincaid belts out a few numbers that we really enjoy the aspiring beauty of Brown’s folksy-pop operetta.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 5, 2016.