Jason Robert Brown is best known for his musicals Parade and The Last Five Years. Neither of them was a massive popular hit, but the composer’s sensitivity and style have gained him a devoted following. Brown’s adaptation of Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County may have been a commercial failure when it opened on Broadway in 2014, though it racked up Tony awards for both its score and orchestrations. This is understandable perhaps, as it is arguably Brown’s most accessible score to date, drawing on a heady mix of folk, country and blues to complement the mood of Waller’s novel.
The story centres on Francesca (Jenna Russell), an Italian war-bride who has made her home and raised a family in Iowa. When her husband and kids are away at the state fair, Francesca encounters photographer Robert Kincaid (Edward Baker-Duly), who awakens feelings of longing that had hitherto been suppressed. Their affair lasts only four days but its import and intensity stays with them for a lifetime.
Such is the brevity of the affair that Marsha Norman’s book struggles to articulate Francesca’s dilemma satisfactorily. Brown’s music brings some much-needed texture to the story. Stand-alone numbers, detached from the narrative, add weight, as well as providing a showcase for the vocal talents of Shanay Holmes as Marian, Robert’s ex-wife. Gillian Kirkpatrick and Paul F Monaghan as family friends Marge and Charlie provide an entertaining portrait of small-town life and are thankfully granted two powerhouse numbers – Get Closer and When I’m Gone – at linchpin moments in the story.
There’s a good deal to like in this UK premiere production, not least the ever-resourceful Russell delivering an emotionally intricate portrait of the conflicted Francesca. There is little chemistry however between Russell and Baker-Duly. Their romance seems languid to the point of indolence, which is as much a fault of the book as Trevor Nunn’s rather dry, occasionally overblown staging.
Jon Bausor’s set might have seemed a good idea at the model-box stage, but the creak and groan of a double revolve in such an intimate space is distracting. Is this Nunn’s homage to the lost revolves of his epic Les Misérables? Robert’s blue truck lumbers on with all the conviction of a kiddies’ fairground ride and even one of the titular bridges appears in an unnecessary moment of stage mechanics. Far more successful is Tal Rosner’s video design, which conjures up a sense of both isolation and insulation with seamless simplicity.
The subtleties of Brown’s undeniably likeable score are not exactly lost in Nunn’s production but the intimacy provided by the Menier should have been a bonus, rather than a problem in need of a solution.