The 1995 film is one of my all-time favourites, with an easy and passionate chemistry between stars Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.
Now, under the direction of Trevor Nunn (who was in the house last night), the musical version by Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman has set up shop at the Menier Chocolate Factory with Jenna Russell as Francesca and Edward Baker-Duly as Robert.
This story of middle-aged soulmates finding each other too late and for too short a time has lush melodies, but lacks the passionate aspects of the tale and clogs the show with too much extraneous material such as Francesca’s family at the fair, Robert’s waitress ex-wife, and a totally unnecessary opener to act two which has the feel of a country hoedown.
The Bridges of Madison County should sink or swim on the relationship between the Italian housewife who feels taken for granted and the freewheeling photographer who finds himself lost in her driveway: you don’t need anything else.
The songs are good, here and there, although I felt Russell struggled now and then with both the accent and some of the range. She also, sadly, lacked the yearning and emotion which should be present in Francesca, even we see in flashback how an early personal tragedy pushes her into a marriage of convenience.
Baker-Duly does better as Robert, although his portrayal is rather one-note, a bit cocky and far too like EE’s Kevin Bacon in his straggly hair and ever-present smile. He feels more calculating than conflicted, and I didn’t really engage with him until his final solo number.
Although there is undoubted talent in the character parts – Gillian Kirkpatrick as nosy neighbour Marge, Shanay Holmes as the ex-wife Marian who sings in her waitress uniform, Paul F Monaghan in fine blues voice as Charlie – the show still needs a judicious trim from 2 hours 45.
The set, by Jon Bausor, is far too complex, busy, and given to distracting noises at changeover and during quieter moments. It also requires half the audience to look over their shoulders for some scenes. Better, when you see through the clutter and the projections, is Tim Lutkin’s understated lighting design, full of warm purples and passionate reds.
Curious, too, was the absence of music in Francesca’s house. A woman of her ability to feel would not be content with just the weather report! I also felt the loss of key scenes between the leading couple that would make us care a bit more.
Ultimately, I wasn’t sure why this material has gone from novel and film to a stage musical. Nunn has form with the musicalisation of novels for the stage, but The Bridges of Madison County has more of the notorious 2008 production of Gone With The Wind about it than the mighty Les Mis.
The Bridges of Madison County continues at Menier Chocolate Factory until 14 September. Photo credits by Johan Persson.