Musicals are tricky creatures and not every story lends itself well to the medium. So, just because you can turn a story into a musical, doesn’t mean you should.
“The Bridges of Madison County,” which is playing at the Fox Theatre now through April 17, is one such example of a story that would have been better left on the shelf.
To say the results are disastrous would be a bit extreme, but they certainly aren’t good. I’m not sure who thought taking a maudlin, overwrought literary sensation from 20 years ago and then bringing it to Broadway was a great idea, but here we are.
For those of you who weren’t housewives in the mid-1990s, “The Bridges of Madison County” is the story of Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley), an Italian expatriate who married Bud (Cullen R. Titmas), a farmer from Iowa, and lives a slow, dull family life in 1965.
Nearly 20 years on the farm have left Francesca feeling constrained and unfulfilled, but all that changes when Bud and the kids leave for a trip to the fair, giving her four days to herself.
Not long after the family is gone, fate delivers a handsome, vagabond photographer right to her front door. Robert (Andrew Samonsky) is in town on a job for National Geographic to photograph the covered bridges in the area, but he gets lost and finds himself on Francesca’s porch asking for directions.
A spark forms between the two as each sees what they most desire in the other person. Robert sees stability and devotion in Francesca, where she sees adventure and soulfulness in him.
The two embark on a brief, passionate fling, and the tension that drives the rest of the production centers on if Francesca will run away for love and excitement or stay with her family out of duty and honor.
We’ll just set aside the merits of the story and whether or not the well-worn plight of the trapped housewife is relevant to today’s audiences and focus on how “The Bridges of Madison County” fails as a musical.
As you would expect, the greatest offender is the music. In spite of snagging a Tony for Best Original Score (I honestly have no idea how that happened, especially on the heels of seeing its chief rival “If/Then,” which was superior in every way), every song in this production is flat and lifeless.
The songs advance the plot and round out the story in an operatic style while attempting to mix in elements of country and folk music. It is a weird mix that never seems to gel. The cast gets a pass as they tried their best with the material at hand and Stanley and Samonsky have decent chemistry; although Stanley’s Italian accent was more than a little intrusive.
The whole thing is just a drag. Even the soaring heights of Francesca and Robert’s passion is couched with guilt and uncertainty. If you are going to tell a story that’s going to leave everybody bummed out, a musical is generally not the best way to go, especially if you are going to double down with mediocre (at best) songs.
“The Bridges of Madison County” enjoyed only a brief run of a few months on Broadway and, mercifully, I suspect this will be its only national tour. Taking a cue from this sad affair, sometimes it’s best just to leave well enough alone.
“The Bridges of Madison County” is playing at the Fox Theatre now through April 17. For tickets, call 314-534-1111 or go to metrotix.com.