Francesca Johnson, an Iowa housewife originally from Italy, looks forward to a few days to herself when her family heads off to the 4H Nationals at the Indiana State Fair. When her family leaves, a well-traveled National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid, arrives to ask for directions to the Roseman Bridge to complete his photo assignment. Robert has recently visited Italy which sparks a fast friendship between himself and Francesca which evolves into something more and forces the two to make some life altering choices. This is The Bridges of Madison County by Marsha Norman with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and based on Robert James Waller’s novel. It is currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
I was quite surprised by this show. I had been expecting a schmaltzy love story, but what I got was a well framed tale that built slowly, organically, and subtly. This story is about much, much more than a man and a woman falling in love. It’s about the circumstances that brought them together, the forces that drive them, and the hard choices they have to make about their respective futures. I especially liked how natural the affair comes about. There’s nothing forced about it. It was just something that happened which leaves it up to the viewer to decide on the morality of what goes down. The show is aided by Brown’s score, especially as interpreted by Jim Boggess and his splendid orchestra. The songs are almost internal monologues and span a series of emotions that I have never seen before in a musical.
A story that builds as methodically as this one requires a very gentle touch with the direction and Kimberly Faith Hickman provides that touch and then some. Ms Hickman strikes each emotional beat dead on the mark. It’s never too much or too little. The pacing is phenomenal and keeps the attention of the audience with every gradual revelation of the plot. She also has a killer set of performers to tell this story, especially in her 4 leads.
That previous sentence may have made you take pause, but there are 4 leads for this production. Kimberly Faith Hickman made the decision to double cast the two leads and each pairing takes one down a very interesting variant of the story. In order to give readers a complete vision of this play, I watched the show twice so I could see how each set of leads interpreted the tale.
Mackenzie Dehmer is deadly accurate with her character choices in the role of Francesca. She seems. . .not happy, but settled in her role as a farm wife. She loves her children. She loves her friends. She even loves her husband, but it isn’t the same love that she once shared with him. Her body language indicates that there is a void in her life that she doesn’t know how to fill.
Then Robert comes into her life.
Suddenly Ms Dehmer just lights up with passion and life as she now has someone with whom she can truly relate. As their friendship grows, Ms Dehmer really makes you see the happiness blooming in her soul, yet it is still tinged with a thorn as she is always constantly aware of the potential effect on her family. Her anguish as she wrestles with the decision to be with Robert or her family is heartbreakingly real and well essayed.
I think Ms Dehmer would have a fine career in opera with her devastating vocal range. A natural alto who effortlessly hits soprano notes, Ms Dehmer shone musically as she wonders about Robert in “What Do You Call a Man Like That?”, consummates her relationship with him in “Falling Into You”, and sings about her haunting final decision in “Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles”.
Angela Jenson-Frey gives us a Francesca who is actually quite happy with her life. Yes, she misses her native country, but is comfortable with her life in Iowa and is mostly satisfied with her choices in life. When Robert appears in her life, there isn’t that immediate spark of attraction. It is a friendship that quickly transforms into a passionate love. Ms Jenson-Frey’s Francesca also seems a bit more assured in her decisions as her final choice seems to come a bit more easily and confidently.
Ms Jenson-Frey also has a beautiful soprano singing voice which she uses to full emotional potential in her numbers whether she’s gladly telling the audience part of her life story in “To Build a Home”, tenderly asking Robert to simply “Look At Me”, or sharing the rest of her life story with Robert in “Almost Real”.
I was crushed by James Verderamo’s take on Robert. He projects a palpable aura of loneliness. His Robert is a man who lives apart from the rest of the world. He’s never in one place very long and has made the decision not to get involved with people because he always has to get to the next assignment. His chemistry with Mackenzie Dehmer is pitch perfect as each truly seems to fill a missing part of the other. When he falls for Francesca, you really feel the wonder of a man who is experiencing happiness for, perhaps, the first time in his life.
Verderamo’s tenor is velvet smooth and allowed him to emote his songs to the fullest. Whether he is “Wondering” about Francesca or describing the life of a photographer in “The World Inside a Frame” or musing about his own mortality in “It All Fades Away”, Verderamo never failed to let the audience see his true thoughts and emotions.
Thomas Gjere’s Robert is far more content in his life. While he is a bit of a wanderer, he is comfortable with the life he has chosen though he believes he isn’t the greatest company in the world. What I liked best about this take is that Gjere’s Robert is quite likable and charming, but seems completely unaware of that fact due to his always focusing on the next assignment. When he falls for Francesca, it seems to truly awaken himself to himself for the first time.
Gjere has a mellow low tenor that you could listen to for hours. His phrasing is always perfectly precise and he makes you feel his budding happiness in “Temporarily Lost” and the full joy of his personal awakening in “Who We Are and Who We Want to Be”.
While this is primarily a two person show, a supporting cast does periodically appear to show what is going on outside Francesca & Robert’s world and sometimes get involved in it. Kevin Olsen and Joey Hartshorn provide some levity as an older married couple who are neighbors of the Johnsons. Ms Hartshorn is especially amusing as the busybody with a heart of gold and has a hilarious solo in “Get Closer”. Mary Trecek belts out a great hoedown in “State Road 21/The Real World” and Analisa Peyton has a moving solo as Robert’s ex-wife in“Another Life” where she explains why she left him.
Jim Othuse crafts a realistic small town with the farmhouse of the Johnsons and a spot on replica of the Roseman Bridge. I also liked how he created bars and other homes through the use of windows and bar counters. Aja Jackson’s lights brilliantly support the story with sunrises, sunsets, and proper mood lighting during the show’s weightier and emotional moments. Megan Kuehler’s costumes well suit a small town farming community with simple dresses for the adult women and t shirts and jeans for the men and kids.
As I said in the beginning, this is far more than a love story. This is a story about two people who were missing something vital and found that missing piece in the other. It is not about their love. It is about what they will do with that love and it makes for a profound tale indeed.
The Bridges of Madison County continues through March 24. Tickets start at $24 and vary by performance and seating zone. Showtimes are Wed-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets can be obtained at the OCP box office, online at www.omahaplayhouse.com, or calling the OCP box office at 402-553-0800. The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.