If you were aware of pop culture in the 1990s, you may recall a book (and then a movie, starring Meryl Streep) called "The Bridges of Madison County." The novel, by Robert James Waller, was both adored for its sensual, tear-jerking portrayal of grown-up romance and mocked as schmaltzy and overwrought. A few years back, the tale of the doomed love between a lonely farm wife and a hunky photographer was adapted into a Broadway musical by Jason Robert Brown ("Parade," "The Last Five Years") and Marsha Norman ("The Secret Garden"). TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, with Robert Kelley directing, has brought the swoony story, set in 1965, to local audiences this spring.
Joan Hess stars as Francesa, the Naples-born war bride who immigrated to Iowa with her U.S. soldier husband, Bud (Timothy Gulan), to escape her devastated homeland and some personal heartache. Two decades later, Francesca (or Fran, as Bud calls her), has settled into life as a Midwestern farm wife in Madison County, Iowa, raising teens Michael (Matt Herrero) and Carolyn (Jessia Hoffman). She loves her family but feels increasingly lonely and isolated, homesick for the Italian life, family and dreams of becoming an artist that she left behind years ago. While Bud and the kids head off on a road trip to enter Carolyn's prize steer into a 4-H fair competition, Francesca, home alone, encounters National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid (Rob Richardson), on assignment to photograph the county's picturesque covered bridges. Sparks fly, and soon they've moved on from small talk and iced tea to declarations of love and a steamy affair. They know they have just a few days together before Francesca's family returns, giving their romance an air of sadness and guilt mixed in with the joy of unexpectedly finding each other. Soon enough, Francesca must make a choice: stay with her humdrum existence and the family that desperately depends on her, or accept Robert's plea that she join him in his life of adventure. Whatever she chooses, it's clear there will be pain and a large "what if?" hovering around her for the rest of her days.
Francesca, as embodied by Hess, is a sympathetic, dignified character. She's been a paragon of virtue for most of her life, appearing to be almost too-saintly as the perfect mother, but enters into the affair with Robert with clear-eyed, full willingness and no hesitation, taking the lead as the instigator of the romance and only seemingly rattled when answering phone calls from Bud. Hess delivers a passable Italian-American accent and an operatic soprano voice (in line with how the music is written), although a more natural, earthier vocal delivery might be more effective for the character. She does get across Francesca's deep sense of longing, especially in the sad, lovely second-act number "Almost Real," in which she flashes back to her life in Naples, giving a deeper glimpse into her losses and broken dreams. Richardson, as Robert, isn't given as much character development to work with but does an excellent job of portraying him as a mix of charming vagabond and wounded loner with a troubled past. His singing voice gets strained a bit in a few crescendos but he was a good casting choice for the rugged-yet-sensitive heartthrob.
The supporting characters and ensemble members all demonstrate strong vocal chops. In fact, there are a number of songs granted to secondary characters that seem to serve solely as filler and that stretch out an already quite-long show. However, as possibly unnecessary as these secondary numbers are, they're also among the most enjoyable, songwriting-and-performance-wise, so I can't quite make the argument they should be cut.
Courtney Stokes appears in one scene as Robert's ex, Marion, and sings a pretty, folk-tinged number ("Another Life"); nosy-but-well-meaning neighbor Marge (Maureen McVerry) is delightful in her sassy pop song "Getting Closer"; and Bud and neighbor Charlie (a funny Martin Rojas Dietrich) get a rousing gospel number ("When I'm Gone").
The majority of the music, though, belongs to Francesca and Robert, and, although Brown's score evokes the stirring melancholy of their romance, it is short on actual melodies that capture the ear of the listener. Their songs all blend together in a sort of meandering, similar mid-tempo-ballad stew. The orchestration, though, headed by William Liberatore and with sound design by Jeff Mockus, sounds great: smooth and polished and with nice touches of acoustic guitar and violins.
The set and lighting design, by Wilson Chin and Pamila Gray, respectively, is stunning, with a backdrop portraying the wide Iowa sky and moving set pieces forming one of the fabled bridges as well as Bud and Francesca's midcentury kitchen.
"The Bridges of Madison County" is, in some ways, full of melodramatic cliche: The bored housewife, the stereotypical portrayal of the American heartland, the handsome outsider who shakes things up. However, cliches often persist because there's something resonant about them, which there certainly is in this case. Audiences will swoon and cry along with Francesca, no doubt mulling over a few "what-ifs" of their own.
While you can argue over whether Francesca makes the right choices, it's hard to argue with the lyrics of her final song, in which she concludes, despite some heartache, to love is "always better."
What: "The Bridges of Madison County"
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.
When: Through April 29 (see online for complete schedule).
Info: Go to TheatreWorks.