JUNE 1, 2017 – Jason Robert Brown is fascinated by conflicted identities.
The acclaimed Jewish composer won a Tony Award for best score focusing on the proudly Southern yet unabashedly Jewish wife of framed husband Leo Frank in the haunting 1999 musical, “Parade.” In a 2007 show appropriately entitled “13,” Brown put songs to the evolving identity of a young New Yorker celebrating his bar mitzvah in the Midwest.
In 2014, he picked up a second Tony for “The Bridges of Madison County,” a musical adaptation that vividly looks at the back story of farmer’s wife Francesca, living in Winterset, Iowa, but recalling her roots growing up in Italy during a 1960s romance with traveling photographer Robert Kincaid.
Based on the Robert James Waller bestseller, it also was adapted for the big screen in 1995, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood.
The SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of the play is at the Boston Center for the Arts through June 3.
Written for the stage by Marsha Norman (“The Color Purple”), “Bridges” finds Francesca walking an emotional tightrope as she tried to balance her new romance with her commitment to family. Fittingly, Brown’s songs carry the heart of that conflict, even when Norman’s words understate it.
M. Bevin O’Gara’s strong tenderly direction, along with performances by Jennifer Ellis as Francesca and Christiaan Smith as Robert, give full expression to the show’s emotional whirlwind.
Ellis and Smith display real chemistry during each rendezvous. Ellis wisely understates Francesca’s accent as an Italian-American who immigrated to Iowa after World War II. Her moving narrative about her Italian former boyfriend, Paolo, and her impulsive sister makes the standout song, “Almost Real,” a high point. She stunningly captures Francesca’s deep inner life, her passion for Robert, and her undying devotion to her family.
Smith proves both sensitive and strong as a good-looking, confident man with articulate views. He moves with ease as a photographer taking shots of a bridge. Possessing a deeply resonant voice and rich tone, he captures Robert’s enduring feelings for Francesca on the late second act solo, “It All Fades Away.” His duets with Ellis are equally remarkable, notably on the first act-closing, “Falling into You.”
“Bridges” admittedly makes fewer demands on its supporting cast as its farming scenes prove relative afterthoughts and the second act at the Indiana State Fair is mildly diverting, Misha Shields’ lively choreography here notwithstanding. Even so, Christopher Chew tries in his considerable way to make Francesca’s relatively conventional but essentially worthy husband, Bud, more than a type, particularly as he brings feeling to his solo, “Something From a Dream.”
Most appealing among the featured players are Kerry A. Dowling as Francesca’s remarkably loyal and nonjudgmental neighbor, Marge, and Will McGarrahan as Marge’s nonchalant yet philosophical husband, Charlie. Katie Elinoff as Francesca’s daughter Carolyn has the right combination of tenacity about farming and vulnerability as a young woman. Nick Siccone makes son Michael properly unpredictable at the fair and singular in his career views.
Call “The Bridges of Madison County” an unusual triumph for SpeakEasy Stage. Thanks to inspired design and the shimmering Ellis and Smith, the answer is stunning visuals and a pair of musical leads unmatched thus far this year and soaring in Brown’s stirringly beautiful score.
“The Bridges of Madison County.” SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. Through June 3. Call 617-933-8600 or visit bostontheatrescene.com.