This was my first visit to Artistry in Bloomington and it reminded me of my first visit to The Jungle Theater, Lyric Arts, and Theater Latte Da. When I left each of those after the first performance I said to myself, I love this theater. The similarities? If you’ve been in these theaters you’ll know they look nothing alike. The similarities, there isn’t a bad seat in the house and my first show in each was a stunner. I was expecting the production to be good, I’ve had friends and colleagues rave about the music of this show and the quality of musicians at Artistry shows in general. I also knew that when when the book on which The Bridges of Madison County is based was published it was considered a romance, something akin to a Danielle Steel novel, though with more cross over appeal. But I was just out of high school and it was what all my friends Mom’s were reading and not something I would have picked up. I saw the Clint Eastwood film in the theater but since that was 25 years ago I can’t say I remember much but the basic plot. It was what we called a “chick flick” back in our less woke times of the mid 90’s. That thought stayed with me as I headed out to the theater tonight. Well this is not a … whatever the theater equivalent is of a “chick flick” is, it’s a “middle aged flick”. And it will not only appeal to your friends’s mothers, it’ll resonate with anyone who has ever had regrets, even if only for a moment, about where they are in life or felt an attraction for someone new. In other words this is a show that should have almost universal appeal.
Jennifer Baldwin Peden stars as Francesca a middle aged Iowa Housewife who came to America after WWII from her home in Italy. With her American G.I. husband over the next 20 years they raised a family and built a home together. Her husband Bud played by Charlie Clark and their children Carolyn played by Alyson Enderle and Michael played by Ryan London Levin head off to a state fair in Indianapolis. Photographer Robert Kincaid played by Eric Morris pulls up to their house, he works for National Geographic and is on assignment taking photos of the covered bridges in the area but he cannot find one of them. Francesca offers to ride with and show him where it is. After that she invites him to stay for dinner and over a bottle of Brandy and dinner they get to know each other. As they spend more time together they fall for each other and must decide what to do with those feelings.
I said early that this is a “middle aged show” One of the things I mean by that is that it seems more mature than say a show like Rent or Be More Chill, it isn’t better than those shows, it just has a different temperament. It’s a more contemplative work. It isn’t a show simply about passions and plots it is grounded in real life emotions and the characters are not simply archetypes. For instance the noisy neighbor Marge played by Wendy Short Hays. When she is introduced as a binocular using neighbor watcher we anticipate the troubles she will cause the lovers. But the play subverts that stereotype and she, along with her husband Charlie played by Fred Mackaman, provide comic relief but also wisdom and another view of life in small town Iowa. The show could have presented this life as a suffocation for Francesca and a dead end life of washing clothes and cooking meals. That would have been enough to justify the temptation Robert, a world traveling Photographer, presents her. But it takes the time to present the positive elements of this life as well. The Song “You’re Never Alone” emphasizes the care they all feel for each other, their sense of community, and the willingness to help each other. The dichotomy of the the two perspective are personified by Francesca and Bud’s two children. Michael does not want to be a farmer he wants to get away from this small world. Carolyn loves the farm life and has raised an award winning steer. Francesca has made a life here, made friends, and raised two children she loves. She also loves her husband, but she is at one of those moments that we all come to from time to time. Where you lose sight of the love, it has been lost temporarily in the day to day chores of life. It is this more encompassing view of life that gives it the nuances that I associate with the patience and understanding that comes with achieving middle age. The show has an understanding of the shades of grey that make up the world, whereas many musicals rely on a more simplified black and white perspective, so that they can focus on other aspects.
The book of the musical written by Marsha Norman alternates scenes between Francesca and Robert with scenes of Bud and the kids on their trip. They call home and talk to Francesca frequently reminding her and us that they exist. Never allowing us to lose sight of Francesca’s reality, at times it illustrates why she would be tempted away, at other times it makes clear who she would be hurting and what she means to them and they to her. The Music and Lyrics were written by Jason Robert Brown and it is a truly beautiful score. There is a nice full sound to the orchestrations and the acoustics at artistry are amazing. The Songs themselves are beautiful particularly when performed by such a talented cast. From the moment Jennifer Baldwin Peden began the first song “To Build a Home”, it was clear I was hearing one of the best singers in the Twin Cities. Sometimes when a singer has an operatic quality to their voice, which Peden does, I find I lose clarity of the lyrics. This is not the case here, I never lost a single consonant. I was expecting the other actors to pale in comparison, but that didn’t happen. Eric Morris was also phenomenal, their Duets were powerful, their voices perfectly matching the hauntingly beautiful score particularly on the song “One Second and A Million Miles”. Clark, Short-Hays and Mackaman, all have their moments to shine musically and they all contribute to the high level of the show.
The direction by Benjamin McGovern is tight, the show is perfectly paced. Shifting focus between the farm and the group at the fair, the neighbors, and flashbacks seamlessly. The scenic design by Rick Polenek was very creative. The perspective of depth created by the three arches representing the covered bridge and the truck cab that is moved around the stage by other performers as they characters drive around. The farmhouse kitchen with it’s detached door which can be turned so we can follow the character from the kitchen out the door and then observe them on the front porch. The phone booth that can be pushed out on the stage so we can watch both ends of phone conversations. The lighting design by Michael P. Kittel also deserves praise. It hard to articulate the perfect match that is achieved between the mood of the music and the lighting, but they are perfectly in sync. Lastly, the Orchestra under the direction of Anita Ruth is the incredible foundation of which this entire production builds.
The Bridges of Madison County at Artistry is a work of maturity featuring some of the most amazing vocal work I have heard. I was won over by this show and it’s incredibly talented artist both on and backstage. You couldn’t ask for a more accomplished and deeply rewarding evening at the theater. The show runs through February 16th for more information and tickets go to https://artistrymn.org/