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A sensitive and strong Bridges

by Jules Becker
Thursday May 25, 2017

The Bridges of Madison County, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through June 3. 617-933-8600 or

Robert Frost wrote of two roads, but "The Bridges of Madison County" has traveled down three. First there was the best-selling but often slow-going 1992 Robert James Waller novel. Three years later, Italian-American housewife Francesca's romantic adventure with crack National Geographic photographer Robert picked up speed thanks to a sharply modulated Meryl Streep performance and a Clint Eastwood film adaptation that veered away from the maudlin.

The third incarnation, a recent musical collaboration (on Broadway in 2014) between Tony Award winners Marsha Norman (''The Color Purple") and Jason Robert Brown ("Parade") may straddle the line between Francesca's emotional voyage and her family's Mid-West trips. Still, Brown's lush score-his second Tony winner-carries the heart of the story even when Norman's spare book seems to understate it. Under Bevin O'Gara's strong direction for SpeakEasy Stage Company's vocally rich Boston premiere, Jennifer Ellis as Francesca and New York talent Christiaan Smith as Robert give full expression to the show's spirited excursion.

Supplementing that spirit from the start is a design team that enhances Brown's score and sometimes seems more vivid than Norman's book. A wide space between the striking large triangles of Cameron Anderson's disarmingly unadorned set could be signifying Francesco's openness to a more exciting life and symbolically allowing for the life-changing entrance of Robert. Annie Weigand's lighting signals the ups and downs of Francesca's daily life and those of her farming husband Bud and Robert. David Reiffel's sound design adds significantly to the show's atmosphere. Garrett Herzig's projections evoke the waters by Francesca's native Napoli, Robert's travel by way of Chicago and Cleveland to Iowa and later Francesca's wartime back story. Mark Nagle's costumes reflect the change in Francesca as she begins to wear more fashionable clothes and shoes instead of her previous sensible ones as she awaits each visit from and meal with Robert.

Ellis and Smith display real chemistry during each rendezvous. Ellis wisely understates Francesca's Italian accent as an Italian-American who immigrated to Iowa after World War II-a la Streep in the film. Her moving narrative about her Italian former boyfriend Paolo and her impulsive sister make the standout song "Almost Real" a high point and as memorable as the most lyrical numbers in the exquisite Adam Guettel score for the recent musical "Light in the Piazza." Ellis stunningly captures Francesca's deep inner life, her passion for Robert and her undying devotion to her family.

For his part, Smith proves both sensitive and strong-the latter as both a good-looking hunk (particularly in an evocative love-making scene) and a confident man with articulate views. He moves with an ease that fits Robert and the right authority as the photographer takes shots of a bridge. Possessing a deeply resonant voice and rich tone, he beautifully captures Robert's enduring feeling for Francesca on the late second act solo "It All Fades Away." His duets with Ellis are equally affecting-notably on the first act-closing "Falling into You." Smith is a true find for SpeakEasy Stage.

"Bridges" admittedly makes fewer demands on its supporting cast as its farming scenes are more like afterthoughts and the second act Indiana State Fair opener is relatively brief, Misha Shields lively choreography here notwithstanding. Even so, Christopher Chew-always a big talent-tries in his considerable way to make Francesca's relatively conventional but essentially worthy husband more than a type, particularly as he brings fine feeling to Bud's solo "Something From a Dream." Most appealing among the featured players are Kerry A. Dowling as Francesca's remarkably loyal and non-judgmental neighbor Marge and Will McGarrahan as her nonchalant yet philosophical husband. Katie Elinoff has the right combination of tenacity about farming and vulnerability as a young woman, while Nick Siccone makes Michael properly unpredictable at the fair and singular in his career views.

Call "The Bridges of Madison County" an unusual triumph for SpeakEasy Stage. After all, take away Norman's so-so book and the show's mild Mid-West ambience and what do you have? Thanks to inspired design and shimmering Ellis and Smith, the answer is stunning visuals and a pair of musical leads unmatched thus far this year.