A musical version of ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ is a mixed success

Not all stories are best put to music, but they still engage. A midlife romance, teeming with talent played on the Fine Arts Center stage in The Bridges of Madison County. Popularized by the 1995 movie starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, the original book by Robert James Walker was in fact a sleeper hit. However, this third musical iteration is somewhat off adaptation.

It is 1965. Bored, 40-something Iowa housewife Francesca Johnson (Jennifer DeDominici) first married her handsome American solider to escape war-ravaged Italy.  Two children and 20 years later, Fran is restless. When ruggedly handsome photographer Robert Kincaid (Dieter Bierbrauer) walks up the driveway asking for directions, her heart stirs — just as her husband and two teenagers have left for the Illinois State Fair.

The duo will live a lifetime in four days.  It is a rich romance that reveals the depth and wisdom that comes with mature love.

As Fran, DeDominici is as graceful as she is alluring. With her Italian accent, barefoot in the farmhouse kitchen, she rocks the understated housedress! Every line and movement flow effortlessly. The audience absorbs her troubled soul: devoted wife and mother, yet unfulfilled woman. The story is carefully cultivated so as not vilify her.

A voice teacher at Colorado College, DeDominici’s work with the Opera Theatre of the Rockies is evident. Equally talented as an actor and vocalist, local patrons will recall her recent performances in The Sound of Music, Guys and Dolls and Mary Poppins. Her breathtaking vocals speak passionately to the voids in Francesca’s life.

Chemistry

FAC newcomer Bierbrauer is the charming Robert Kincaid. He lands the right balance to Robert as the antagonist in the story. While smitten by Francesca, he is respectful.  While unattached, he is neither the philandering opportunist nor a retreating sap. The success of Bridges hinges on the chemistry of these two leads: DeDominici and Bierbrauer clearly have it.

As nosey neighbor Marge, Susan Dawn Carson wows the nearly full house with a sultry serenade, backed up by the Radio Singers performing at the State Fair. Crafty staging energizes the close of the first act as the scenes switch between the farmhouse and the fair where Bud Johnson (Jeffrey Roark) and the Johnson teenagers are immersed in their livestock competitions — unaware of the drama back on the farm.

Roark is a well-known staple on the FAC stage. He has portrayed wonderfully comic characters to disturbingly dysfunctional types; recent FAC credits include Hands on a Hardbody. As farmer Bud Johnson he portrays a good man oblivious to his wife’s longings.

The Johnson teens nail the exuberance of adolescence, steeped in amusing sibling rivalry. Rachel Daguman (Carolyn) has remarkable physicality on stage, mastering the indignant voice and attitude of teenage defiance. Carolyn’s brother Michael (Mark Autry) cannot resist the chance to tease and toy with his sister — and he does it so well. The two are welcome levity as they bounce in and out of the action.

Out-of-sync

Francesca is as out-of-place in rural Iowa as are vocals in this production. The musical numbers often seem ill-placed, the wrong genre and an interloper to the storyline. As the set captures a simple, folksy feel, rural folk breaking into somber song seems out of step.

This musical adaptation of Bridges is nearly void of any dance sequences. There is an energizing Act Two opener featuring a hoedown at the State Fair. FAC veteran Carmen Vreeman Shedd brings down the house in country song, sporting white retro cowboy boots and western wear (think Dolly Parton back in the day).

Where music may be a distraction to Bridges, superb stagecraft shares credit for this show’s overall success. A muted backscreen captures the expanse of Iowa cornfields, depicts a setting sun or the farm awash in morning light. The simple, flexible set shifts effortlessly between the farmhouse, the neighbors, the bridges and the State Fair. There are the sounds of crickets in the night air and the chirping of birds as the day breaks.

Unlike most musicals — but slightly disconcerting — this production’s success lies in the subtleties, not the spectacle.