The tour of&nbsp;<em>The Bridges of Madison County</em>&nbsp;at Dallas Summer Musicals

Review: The Bridges of Madison County | Dallas Summer Musicals | Music Hall at Fair Park

Sentimental Adultery

Lush music and strong singers almost redeem the mawkish affair at the heart of the musical adaptation of Bridges of Madison County at Dallas Summer Musicals.

published Saturday, February 6, 2016

Photo: Matthew Murphy
The tour of The Bridges of Madison County at Dallas Summer Musicals


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.

Photo: Matthew Murphy
The tour of The Bridges of Madison County at Dallas Summer Musicals

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. Thanks For Reading


Linda Lou writes:
Thursday, February 11 at 8:07PM

This was the worst DSM production I've ever seen and we are long-time subscribers. Our party of 4 couldn't understand a word that Elizabeth Stanley was saying or singing because of her contrived accent, which sounded more Slavic that Italian.(Stephen Gabis, dialect coach?) Was her miking off? The orchestra seemed to play over her Her musical solos were unintelligible but for a few words here and there. Thank God Andrew Samonsky had a phenomenal voice and easily projected into the theatre. Did this production forget that 90 percent of people going to this show are over the age of 50? And what was with that nutty staging. People were sitting far stage right and left motionlessly on chairs but easily viewed by the audience. Then all of a sudden in the middle of the scene while the actors were singing or speaking, they got up and started moving the scenery around. This jarring, distracting and discordant action with non-acting people streaming onto the stage moving scenery continued all the way through the production, including one of the scenes where the leads are laying in a love embrace on their bed and people start moving through the bedroom. WHAT???? Did the director Bartlett Sher ever sit in the audience at all and think that maybe the audience would find this distracting? And Scenic Designer Michael Yeargan couldn't find a way to project a covered bridge -- the whole focus of the Nat. Geographic story line? His framing posts lowered from above stage made it look more like a construction site than a historic covered bridge. I'm just flummoxed by what I saw today. Not DSM's finest hour for sure.

ToscasKiss writes:
Thursday, March 17 at 11:47AM

This is late, I know, but I happened to find this review and one comment, and feel compelled to put in my two cents, which is basically that BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY was simply magnificent, and ascends to the upper tier of my list of favorite DSM presentations over many years of seeing their shows. Just for context, a few other favorites, off the top of my head, include MY FAIR LADY with Douglas Fairbaks, Jr. (the first show I was taken to at the Music Hall, when I was a child), as well as the last production of MFL they did, starring Marla Schaffel and Ed Dixon, that really made it clear why that show is considered a classic; BIG RIVER, with James McElroy in the Deaf West production; RAGTIME; TITANIC; CONTACT; THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL; THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE; PARADE (another great Jason Robert Brown score); FLOWER DRUM SONG (even though it was a revisal and not really that musical, it won me over and was lovely); INTO THE WOODS; GRAND HOTEL; WILL ROGERS FOLLIES (saw two productions they did of this, but the first, the 1st national tour, with Keith Carradine, Dee Hoty and Cady Huffman, was the good stuff); SHOW BOAT; SOME LIKE IT HOT (aka SUGAR); DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS; HELLO DOLLY; PROMISES, PROMISES; TICK, TICK...BOOM; FALSETTOS; PETER many great shows through the years (and I haven't, by any means, seen all of them).

Friends and I found the staging of BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY to be masterly, and the complaints the other commenter here made about it make me wonder whether she sees much theater at all, and whether she always insists on such absolute literalism in all artistic or literary works she experiences. The set's bridge is rendered minimally, not needing to be a realistic recreation of an actual covered bridge. Using cast members to move sets for scene changes, especially as beautifully coordinated with the music, kept the action swirling forward, without breaks, maintaining a level of excitement. The presence of others not involved in the current scene, whether seated at the edges of the stage, or sometimes moving through, reinforced the essential story element of neighbors and others being so present in the characters' lives at all times, for better and for worse. Also, characters spoken of, from the past (Robert's ex-wife, Francesca's first love, American soldiers, and her sister Chiara) became present to us, as Francesca and Robert spoke or sang about them. This was not confusing in the least, but was wonderful storytelling.

I had little difficulty understanding Ms. Stanley's lyrics and dialogue (I had listened to some of the songs from the show before attending the performance, so was aware of the general story of her first song and a few others; I find it's a good idea to have some familiarity with scores of musicals or operas before seeing them, though I was particularly delighted with many of the songs I had not heard before, when watching the show). The entire cast was simply excellent, and Ms. Stanley was particularly moving; I especially admired her ability to sing so strongly and beautifully while actually crying, towards the end of the show. Another great element was the orchestral ensemble, in which it was so lovely to be able to hear individual instruments, and a decent cadre of strings, with synthesized elements used only sparingly and effectively, unlike so many instances these days. It was things like these that compelled me to buy another ticket and see the show a second time, for their last performance. I thank the Dallas Summer Musicals for bringing such a special, marvelous show to us. I only wish I could see it again.

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Sentimental Adultery
Lush music and strong singers almost redeem the mawkish affair at the heart of the musical adaptation of Bridges of Madison County at Dallas Summer Musicals.
by Martha Heimberg

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