Dallas — If a hunky photographer asking for directions showed up at the farmhouse door of a lonely Iowa housewife in 1965 just after her husband and kids crawled in the pickup for a long weekend at the State Fair, she’d take him to the historic covered bridge herself—and let romantic fantasy run its course. Talk about timing.
A few scenes later when Robert (Andrew Samonsky), the National Geographic photographer, tells Francesca (Elizabeth Stanley) how timing is everything in getting the right shot, we already know this handsome, passionate, brilliant, introverted Texan now living in Seattle knows a thing or two about timing. Take your time. Wait for it to happen. Don’t rush it. Like that, ladies?
All that highly calibrated foreplay before the actual seduction is the fun part of The Bridges of Madison County, the musical adaptation of the Robert James Waller’s bestselling novel, with a book by Marsha Norman and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, for which he won a Tony when the show premiered on Broadway in 2014. The touring production, presented by Dallas Summer Musicals at the Music Hall at Fair Park, stays close to the award-winning show with Bartlett Sher’s original direction recreated by Tyne Rafaeli.
Even if you read the steamy page-turner or saw the movie with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, the two-people-lock-eyes-and-can’t-stop-looking aspect of the story works here, too. Stanley is believable as the ripe and restless Francesca, an Italian war bride, sometimes homesick but quietly dutiful. Her operatic soprano voice is never strained, although her Italian accent sometimes mushed the lyrics on opening night, especially in her opening number, “To Build a Home.” I followed the solo cello more easily.
Samonsky’s craggy good looks and fit torso would be reason enough to keep him over the weekend. But he has a powerful tenor voice, to boot, displayed in his solo, “Temporarily Lost,” and providing a strong center to Stanley’s soaring soprano in duets. The songs en route to the bedroom are filled with dramatic passion and rich orchestration, and the singers generate a gathering sense of inevitability. Eventually, though, the time-outs to tell backstories get in the way, and it’s hard not to become impatient with these tortured lovers. C’mon—it’s only four days—and you’re no spring chickens, either.
Michael Yeargan’s set design is chiefly made of romantic, multi-hued skies and clever drop-down or roll-in set pieces and props, from a neighbor’s front porch to the heroine’s kitchen stove. A phone booth drops from above when Francesca’s husband Bud (a mud-booted Cullen R. Titmas) calls in from the road, where he has taken a break from their children Carolyn (Caitlin Houlahan) and Michael (former Dallas actor John Campione). There’s even an abstracted bridge—not covered, by the way.
Brown's wide-ranging, richly orchestrated score includes operatic solos reflecting the lovers' inner conflicts, bluesy songs that comment on the narrative, and country music worthy of a state fair ho-down. The songs are melodious and the excellent 16-piece orchestra swells to match the lovers' yearning duets, but they're not the sort of tunes you leave the hall humming.
Throughout the play the farming community is seen “watching from their windows,” as Francesca says, standing off to the sides of the bedroom action, silently moving props and making us aware of Francesca’s life before her torrid affair. One neighbor, Marge (a nosey but compassionate Mary Callahan) even hauls out her binoculars to check out the strange truck in the driveway. Hmmm. In one of the show’s sharpest bits, Robert takes Francesca in his arms to dance in her kitchen, switches the radio on and Marge starts singing a bluesy ballad “Get Closer.” They do.
The second act goes on and on. The star-crossed couple embraces, wring their souls in song, and swear eternal love, together or not. Then it just keeps going. When Francesca’s family returns home and the action moves into the future by one year, three, many more, the whole business of a wife’s adulterous affair vanishes from the community. No Madame Bovary guilt or accusation here. Just a weepy sniff or two at sentimental moments—a birth, a graduation, a funeral. Did she make the right choice? What of Robert? By the final curtain, I was glad to applaud the ending and leave them to heaven.