It happens so often in Iowa that the housewives have come to expect it: Moments after their husbands and children head off to the state fair, hunky photographers arrive, asking directions to picturesque bridges. The photographers have drifters’ souls and hide from true intimacy behind their cameras, but the brave, lonely housewives spark their hitherto-untapped passions, which flourish briefly before they must be renounced and mourned ever after.
At least it happens regularly in the Iowa of “The Bridges of Madison County,” first a bestselling novel by Robert James Waller, then a film starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, and now a Broadway musical, which brought its national tour Thursday night to the Ahmanson Theatre.
For the record
An earlier version of this review said the national tour opened in Los Angeles. It opened in Iowa.
As a novel, "Bridges" is chick lit. As a film, it's a chick flick. We don’t have a handy term yet for theater aimed at women — perhaps because there’s so little of it or we can’t find a good rhyme — but if we did, we could apply it to this musical. There will be many women in the house during this run, possibly carrying spray bottles to mist themselves after the steamy displays of pecs.
But all its life, “Bridges” has attracted not only the eye-rolling reserved for romance novels (So mawkish! So implausible! When does his shirt come off?) but also exceptionally talented artists, whose commitment to adapting it might suggest cynicism if it didn’t seem so heartfelt. For reasons nobody can quite explain, the naughty long weekend in 1965 of Francesca, a middle-aged Italian-American war bride, and Robert, a National Geographic photographer, seized the imaginations of a pantheon of American theater greats.
Marsha Norman (“ ‘night, Mother,” “The Color Purple”) wrote the book, Jason Robert Brown composed and orchestrated the score, and Lincoln Center Theatre's Bartlett Sher directed. All three received Tony nominations, and Brown won for his score and orchestrations. Although Sher's direction is "re-created" for the road by Tyne Rafaeli, Brown has accompanied the tour to L.A. and even conducts the orchestra himself.
That suggests passionate commitment, as does the score itself, an almost frantically ambitious sampling of genres, from opera to country to the blues. There's a soaring duet for every step the couple takes toward the bedroom, and Robert and Francesca have to pause often, mid-kiss, for tortured, introspective solos. The melodies are lush and inventive, but none are exceptionally catchy. They sort of run together, and in any case they constitute a lot of foreplay for such a brief affair. Maybe they don't have to sing the chorus quite so many times, and they could definitely skip the passages in which Brown's lyrics give way to wordless vocalizing. "Your husband's on his way home, Francesca!" I was tempted to holler. "Skip a few verses."
All of Francesca's family members, meanwhile, have their own stories and accompanying solos. Her husband, Bud Johnson (Cullen R. Titmas), takes their two teenagers to the fair, where Carolyn (the adorable Caitlin Houlahan) enters her steer in a competition and Michael (Dave Thomas Brown) experiences an identity crisis. Norman also has created a pair of comical neighbors, Marge and Charlie (Mary Callanan and David Hess). Marge spies on Francesca and her “hippie” guest through binoculars and tries to engage the phlegmatic Charlie in erotic speculation; their rapport is humorous and ultimately touching.
You can see what Norman is doing: building up the world outside the torrid encounter to give it context and heft, trying to turn a hot fling into an American prairie saga. Sure, Iowa may look empty. Set designer Michael Yeargan has made it mostly a spectacular, color-changing sky above a flat golden prairie, with deconstructed pieces of buildings suggesting the insignificance of the human presence in all this space. (The covered bridge that Robert photographs doesn’t even have a cover.) But Norman lets us know that no matter how isolated Francesca feels, she’s surrounded by the eyes of a close-knit community. The company, as in "Our Town," is always onstage. In case we miss the point, they join Bud in a farewell song to Francesca before he loads up the truck, “You’re Never Alone,” which is more menacing than consoling.
We get flashbacks to the war, when Bud and Francesca met in Naples, and also a back story about Robert’s ex-wife, a singer (Katie Klaus). These past loves’ intrusions on the budding romance — by middle age, we’ve all accumulated whole posses of exes that accompany us everywhere — are gracefully directed and feel true.
But because they don’t really add anything to the growing attraction between Robert and Francesca — which remains as inexplicable as any human attraction no matter how many songs they sing about it — many of Norman’s additions feel like padding. Does Charlie, Marge’s husband, really need a solo? That it turns out to be one of the show’s best songs (the wry, bluesy “When I’m Gone”) doesn’t mean he has a real purpose onstage.
In fact, it’s not easy to justify any of the other story lines when all we really want to know is when Robert and Francesca are going to get busy. Andrew Samonsky, who plays the delish Robert Kincaid (what a Harlequin romance name!), is a doll. People at intermission were muttering about Ryan Gosling, but I thought Peter Horton in “Thirtysomething,” with his wings of golden hair, his narrow, sensitive face, his developed torso and, almost incidentally, his powerful, throbbing voice. From the moment he walks onstage and sees the ripe Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley) in her country dress, we all know what’s going to happen. The only question is how and how soon. The show has the charm to poke fun at its conventions even while playing them to the hilt, inviting the audience to giggle knowingly as Francesca gets distracted during a phone call by the sight of Robert changing his shirt.
Norman gives Francesca her best lines, dry comebacks at which Stanley excels. Initially, she seems encumbered by her florid Italian accent and stridently operatic soprano, but eventually she relaxes into this difficult role, which demands that she seem simultaneously pure and hot to trot. Although her accent sometimes makes her lyrics difficult to understand, her expressive voice conveys the depth and complexity of Francesca's emotions.
Even so, after the seduction, the story begins to drag. Not only do the four days Robert and Francesca spend together expand into an eternity of proclamations, but even after she renounces him, we must endure, along with her, the rest of her life without him.
“The emotional peak of the movie is the renunciation,” as Roger Ebert insightfully observed in 1995. But the musical doesn’t stop there — it keeps stringing us along, making Francesca reflect to the point of obsession on the life she made. We all know she had to stay in Iowa and raise her family. If she had run away with Robert, she would have had to wash those shirts he’s always ripping off.
"The Bridges of Madison County," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Jan. 17, 2016. $25 to $130 (prices subject to change). (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.