May 20 2016 11:32 AM

Passion drives 'The Bridges of Madison County'

FRIDAY, May 20 — Fear not, romance fans. “The Bridges of Madison County” is one of the rare Broadway musical adaptations that not only delivers the steamy material of its source material but also transcends its genre trappings. Based on the novel by Robert James Waller, “The Bridges of Madison County,” running at the Wharton Center through Sunday, enhances the romantic small-town fantasy by blending a stellar cast with a beautiful contemporary musical score. Even if you’ve read the book or seen the film, you’ve never heard it quite like this.

The core of the musical is a trope-filled period romance set in 1965. Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley) is an Italian transplant who married an American World War II soldier and returned with him to Iowa. When her family leaves town for a week, a handsome stranger (Andrew Samonsky as Robert, a National Geographic photographer) swings through town to photograph the local covered bridges. In the process, he rekindles the dormant passion in Francesca.

In terms of plot, “The Bridges of Madison County” is a by-the-numbers story. Of course he’s going to stay for dinner; of course he’ll use her shower; of course he’ll spend the night. But Francesca is more than a two-dimensional stand-in for audience fantasies. As played by Stanley, she’s a dry-witted, mean cooking, sassy soprano who feels lonely in her insular small town. When speaking, Francesca keeps her thoughts to herself. But when she sings, Stanley’s voice plumbs the depths of pain, regret and passion in every number. She shares an incredible chemistry with Samonky.

As Robert, Samonsky has the pre-requisite lust-worthy physical features. He has the features of a tall, rugged model for an outdoorsy catalog. Robert is a gentleman from Texas who has traveled the world. Every word he says is passionate, considerate and charming. For his part, Samonsky sings with a stunning operatic baritone and speaks with an easy authenticity. It must be difficult to play an unattainable fantasy, but Samonsky works his magic to make Robert feel like a reality.

The show could easily be a two person production, but it makes the most out of its supporting cast. Mary Callanan and David Hess, as Francesca’s neighbors Marge and Charlie, shine especially bright. An aging couple, Marge and Charlie share a hilarious exchange in the seond act where she asks what he would do if she cheated. Both actors also have incredible voices. Callanan nails her number, “Get Closer,” in Act One, while Charlie steals the show in the blues/gospel/country jam, “When I’m Gone.” Francesca’s family (Cullen R. Titmas as husband Bud and Caitlin Houlahan and John Campione as children Carolyn and Michael, respectively) are fantastic as the “real” people that Francesca must weigh against her fantasy fling.

Acting and singing aside, “The Bridges of Madison County” looks and feels romantic thanks to the spacious scenic design by Michael Yeargan and Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams. The Wharton Center stage is relatively small, but it feels massive with the musical’s starry backdrop and accent pieces that fly or roll in without cluttering the stage.

It also sounds incredible. Jason Robert Brown’s contemporary musical score references everything from classical to blues to bluegrass and country. The music supports and drives the story but also stands completely on its own.

At its best, “The Bridges of Madison County” is far more than a fantasy romance. It’s a relatable story of an isolated misfit and an ode to the power of connection. At its most fun, it’s a steamy soap that sets a high bar.

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